The Deer King is one of those movies whose message becomes eerily prescient by the time it’s released. First written in 2014 and adapted in 2017, no one could have known that a story about a plague becoming a focal point for political unrest and ethnic tension would become so unfortunately relevant upon its release in 2021.
The Deer King was written by an ethnographer whose studies of indigenous people and their resistance to oppression inspired her to write a fantasy novel based on folk understanding of disease. Unlike the medical model of disease, folk understanding takes in ideas from religion, magic, superstition, bloodlines, people’s heritage, and all cultural meanings contextual to a disease event.
So The Deer King is set in the land of Aquafra, a country invaded and dominated by the Empire of Zol. Afrafra includes many different peoples, including village farmers as well as herding nomads. In the north, where the Fire Horse region resisted invasion, dwelt people who hunted with wolves. From this place issued the disease know as Black Wolf Fever, which brought the Zol forces to a halt. The Lone Antlers are fearsome warriors, nomadic deer herders who ride their deer into battle, and were known for their fierce resistance to Zol rule.
Many years after Aquafra’s annexe, our story begins with Van, a slave in the salt mines known for his strength of body and of character. When a new outbreak of Black Wolf Fever devastates the mine, he is the lone survivor along with an orphaned child. He escapes to freedom and is taken in by some settled nomads. In this warm and happy community are the different people of Aquafra, including ethnic Zol who now call Aquafra their home. Here, he begins life anew, bringing knowledge and skills on deer rearing, and bonds with his orphaned charge, Luna, who becomes his new daughter. And his silence and solitariness begin to unfold, and he is like a man come back to life again.
Meanwhile the leader of Zol in Aquafra, the Lord of this tributary state, is dying of Black Wolf Fever. His successor is a fair man, with respect for the Aquafra people, but who is pressured on all sides. First from the Emperor who is coming to the region to visit and who wants to make a point of going to Fire Horse Village as a show of it as included within Zol’s rule. Second from the Zol armed forces who see the re-emergence of Black Wolf Fever as a biological warfare attack. Thirdly from the ethnic Aquafra political establishment who want to ensure the anti-Aquafra sentiment the plague is stoking doesn’t jeopardise their position and standing.
The last strand to talk about is that ethnic Aquafra political establishment, a subjugated king and his adviser, who conspire with the Fire Horse leader to unleash Black Wolf Fever in time for the Emperor’s visit, to exterminate Zol people in Aquafra as an act of ethnic cleansing, and a means to destroying the Zol army, and paving the way for Aquafra independence once more. However, neither entirely trusts the other, with the Fire Horse leader being well aware that the king’s actions are self-serving, and seeing this plague more as the justice of the land itself, than a tool to wield in petty squabblings for power.
That’s not the plot – that’s the concept. That’s the TLDR of where the movie starts essentially. So, as you can see, it’s like a season of Game of Thrones compacted into 2 hours.
There is so much in this movie. Themes on race, politics, religion, society, and societal breakdown in times of stress. It is honestly weird to think this was written before coronavirus had even been heard of. Because it’s like someone has made a Japanese fantasy film about the coronavirus, so many things are analogous, that it’s actually more creepy that they thought this stuff up on their own, then it happened. Zol priests refuse to take treatment, religious exemption if you will, believing that their own godly understanding of disease can be combatted through ritual and prayer. All Aquafraese are blamed for spreading the plague, as theirs is the country of origin, and this stokes racial prejudice from the Zol. Politicians on every side seek to use the disease and its attendant crisis for their own ends, while doctors diligently just try to keep the living from death. People ascribe a moral meaning to those who perish from the disease, while in reality, it kills indiscriminately among those not immune.
Chocca movie. You will not want for content.