When you think of motion picture taboo busting, the glorious efforts of the exploitation era instantly come to mind. No other film genre took the time, and the risk, of bringing the most forbidden of film subjects to the silver screen. Oddly enough, the results of these cinematic impresarios did not go unnoticed around the world. Take 1972's Intimate Confessions of a Chinese Courtesan. The idea of kung fu lesbian prostitutes within an old world wuxia setting set tongues wagging when it was released in Hong Kong. The Shaw Brothers, infamous for pushing the envelopes within the martial arts movie, outdid themselves this time with a scandalous slice of sex, swordplay, and classic blood splattered slaughter.
When Ainu is kidnapped and brought to the brothel run by Madame Chun, she immediately becomes a problem. Belligerent and angry, she fights her captors and refuses to eat. Eventually, a mute jailer befriends her, and Ainu learns that she can catch more flies with honey than vinegar. Soon, she wins Chun's favor, and begins a systematic process of revenge on those who deflowered her when she first arrived. Killing the men one by one, she is pursued by police chief Ji, new to the area and unsure of how things work. Ainu knows she is protected by the local authorities, and brazenly admits to her crimes. Of course, once she's finished with the former customers, it's on to the individual who enslaved her in the first place.
She is complemented effortlessly by Betty Pei Ti. Madame Chun is a complex character, a woman whose life in service of sex is marred by a hatred of men and a desire for power. Her lesbianism is more of a leaning than a lifestyle, a way of keeping the constant barrage of testosterone away from herself and her girls. She is more than capable of killing when she has to (she carries the classic body piercing 'yin yang hands'), yet reserves such fatal flourishes for the very last moments of a conflict. As beautiful as Ho, perhaps even more so, Pei Ti is indeed a perfect counterpart to her costar. She's just as rebellious as her potential lover, just not as outwardly or awkwardly so.
It's no surprise then that the male leads of Intimate Confessions of a Chinese Courtesan are rather thin. It's bad enough that the Shaws were dealing with the unheard of subject of homosexuality, so the standard cads and cavaliers are present and accounted for. Even Yueh Hua's police chief Ji is constantly emasculated by Chun and Ainu. He is seen as ineffectual and unable to handle the women's cunning and conniving. Elsewhere, brutish scoundrels bid on bodies and flaunt their failing libidos. There is a lot of dangerous gender politics in this film, something that surely gave journeyman director Yuen Chor pause for concern.
Yet Intimate Confessions of a Chinese Courtesan is one of the filmmaker's best, a clever combination of faked Hollywood backdrops and sumptuous character costuming. Chor was new to the wuxia genre, having made his first such effort in 1970 (Cold Blade). It was said film that brought him to the attention of the Shaws. He fits perfectly within the Brothers' brazen dynamic. He has a wonderful way with action, capturing the aerial elements with authenticity and flare. But he's just as good with the intimate scenes, especially in a post-flogging embrace when Chun literally kisses Aiun's wounds to make them 'all better.'
Image's DVD release of this long requested title captures the color saturated charms of the Shaw's product in pristine picture reproduction. As they did with Killer Snakes, they retain the original aspect ratio and Mandarin soundtrack, providing excellent English subtitles for those of us from the West. The only bonus feature of value is a short documentary entitled "Intimate Confessions of Three Shaw Girls". While Lily Ho (who retired from film in 1974) and Betty Pei Ti (now a singer) are not present, a trio of recognizable names from the studio take time to discuss the impact Ainu's lesbianism had on the Chinese community, as well as the reaction in the actresses' native Taiwan. It’s an interesting addition to the oral history of the prominent production company.
It has been said that Clarence Fok Yiu-leung based his brilliant 1992 thriller Naked Killer on Intimate Confessions of a Chinese Courtesan, and it's not hard to see the resemblance. Both movies use sexual desire and splatterific gore to tell a basic tale of pride and payback. Chor even remade the movie himself in 1984 with Lust for Love of a Chinese Courtesan. With its combination of erotica and violence, glamour and gall, nothing can beat the original. Had it not borne the Shaws recognizable label, grindhouse fans might swear this was a Harry Novak or Bob Cresse import. Indeed, exploitation loved to challenge convention while it served the salacious needs of its horndog audiences. Everything about this Hong Kong classic screams prurient and perverted - and devotees wouldn't want it any other way.