Intimate Confessions of a Chinese Courtesan [愛奴] (1972)
Starring Lily Ho Li-Li, Betty Pei Ti, Yueh Hua, Tung Lam, Man Chung-San, Fan Mei-Sheng, Goo Man-Chung, Chan Shen, Fang Mian, Chan Ho, Sze-Ma Wah-Lung, Lee Ho, Hoh Gong
Directed by Chor Yuen
Expectations: Very high.
If you boil it down to its bare elements, Intimate Confessions of a Chinese Courtesan is a simple revenge story. At the same time, it’s something of a revisionist version of the simple revenge story, as the film’s plot plays out far different than any previous Shaw Brothers revenge film (and believe me, there were a lot of those!). The film is also gorgeously well-directed by the one and only Chor Yuen, who is able to construct an artful, rousing melodrama from the base elements of a trashy genre film. It’s something to behold.
The film begins with a green-tinted sequence where an investigator (Yueh Hua) questions a man who found a dead body. The end of the scene connects us to a time years prior, where, now in full color, we are shown the film’s title and a sequence full of slow motion and sheer fabric. The woman at the center of this scene is Lady Chun (Betty Pei Ti), a madam who rules her profitable brothel with a figurative iron fist (gotta make that clear in a Shaw Bros film!). This particular day is a fateful one, as Lady Chun receives a newly kidnapped shipment of young girls, one of which is the divinely beautiful Ainu (Lily Ho Li-Li).
Apparently in 1972 this film caused quite the stir for its mixture of graphic violence and lesbian romance. Even in 2014, I’m not sure a general American audience could make it through this one without some serious hangups. It’s not that the film is that graphic or outrageous, there’s just an unsettling and, depending on who you are, uncomfortable quality to the film that makes it unique. There have been many scenes in movies of people being tortured and whipped, but how many end with the dominant female torturer licking blood from her subject’s wounds and deriving a lustful sexual pleasure from it? It’s that sort of thing that keeps the edge on Intimate Confessions of a Chinese Courtesan, because even today stuff that daringly erotic is rare. It should also be noted that the lesbianism is never handled like exploitation material, it’s merely a representation of love in a different form, and very artfully filmed.
The violence is also worth mentioning. For the most part, it’s just fun, standard Shaw Bros. fare with a lot of swinging swords and bodies hurled through whatever flimsy wooden thing happens to be in their way. The action was choreographed by Simon Chui Yee-Ang, and his work here is great. It would be wrong to call this an action film, but what action there is punches up the film nicely. But it’s the type of violence that sets this one apart. The film isn’t strictly a wuxia, but it retains the fantasy of that genre, allowing characters to jump effortlessly and practice devious kung fu skills. One character’s hands are so strong that they can (and do) bust through anything their owner wishes them to. This isn’t Story of Ricky or anything, but the moments of gore sprinkled throughout are fantastic, gruesome, nasty messes. There’s one moment in the film that surpasses just about everything I’ve seen gore-wise in my chronological run through the Shaw films, and that’s saying something in a series with all kinds of creative decapitations and dismemberment. Your mileage may vary, of course, but I was actually shocked that they took it as far as they did. Definitely ahead of its time.
These genre delights would be just that without the strong, confident hand of Chor Yuen guiding the film. His intuitive use of slow motion and freeze-frame, two very simple techniques, augment already intense moments with even more power and ferocity. The freeze-frames specifically stuck with me like images burned into a monitor. As moments vitally important to the character, these freeze-frames place us directly inside of Ainu’s head at the time, allowing us to feel some of her pain and anguish. The use of the green-tinted opening is also especially well done, as the scene later replays in full color once the story has reached this out-of-sequence moment. When it first played, we had little information (only one color), but by the time we see it in full, brilliant color we know the circumstances, the motive, and where the rest of the film is likely heading.
Chor Yuen takes many disparate elements — both trashy and thoughtful — and brings them together for a film unlike anything I’ve seen. It’s part wuxia, part rape/revenge, part prostitution melodrama, part exploitation, part mystery, and part cat-and-mouse thriller, and it does all of these simultaneously and perfectly. It’s a rare film that can successfully bring two genres together, but Intimate Confessions of a Chinese Courtesan is an ambitious film that achieves it all, and artfully as well. You may have seen this story in film before, but I doubt you’ve seen it told as succinctly and entertaining as it was in Intimate Confessions of a Chinese Courtesan. Highly recommended to anyone interested in world cinema.
Next up in this chronological jaunt through the Shaw Brothers Martial Arts catalog is another tale from The Water Margin, Chang Cheh and Pao Hsueh-Li’s Delightful Forest! See ya then!
Wow! Sounds like quite something. I like Chor Yuen as a director so I am curious to see this
Yeah I loved it! I’d be interested in your take on it as well. He remade it in the ’80s too, but I haven’t seen that one.
It’s a great film. Perhaps a little overrated now – a decade ago, it seemed like no one in the West had heard of it, now it usually tops lists or retrospective on Shaw – but certainly one of the most interesting martial-arts film of the decade.
For all the taboo-breaking genre conventions, the film mostly has all the illicit charm of a vintage Tod Browning or Josef Von Sternberg film. The only thing holding it back is that its adherence to the rape-revenge structure is a little too pat.
I’ve never seen the remake, but it looks gorgeous, all of Chor Yuen’s style applied to a much more modern New Wavish visual palette. Its worth noting that, while the remake is usually written off as a softcore cash-grab, Chor originally wanted the film to be straight melodrama, being forced to turn the film into a martial-arts film by Run Run Shaw. As such, it might be closer to his original vision. I’ve also heard it gives a bigger emphasis to Lady Chun and the investigator.
Yeah, I was surprised how much I liked it. It feels like it has crossover potential as well, which is probably why it’s topping those lists. It’s an interesting one because it is a top Shaw film, but because it’s not really an action movie, I’d be hesitant to put it high on a list with other more traditional martial arts film. Perhaps with a disclaimer. I guess I’ll decide when I make the 1972/1973 list!
I’m excited to see the remake. Like you said, I’m interested to see how he would handle it with all the greatness that Shaw films of the ’80s have. Thanks for the back story, too! Very interesting, and I can see how it could have been conceived without the martial arts. I was surprised there was as much martial arts as there was in this version.
I went in with no expectations and this movie really surprised me… couldn’t agree more with your review. It’s fantastic… and the two female leads both do a superb job. I wonder if the remake is better… haven’t been able to find it.
Can’t imagine the remake being as good as this one. It’s hardly in need of a remake, so I wonder why he did it. If you can play Region 3 discs, Celestial put out a HK DVD that’s out of print but still available at DDDHouse, YesAsia, eBay, etc.