Chinese audiences know the film by the name of its heroine, which is first mentioned at a murder scene. A man is dead in his own home, partly covered in snow falling through a hole in the roof. His butler explains that the victim had just recently entertained Ai Nu, a noted courtesan. An extended flashback follows, forming the first act of the film. Ai Nu (Lily Ho) is one of a number of young women recruited forcibly from the countryside to become courtesans at the elegant brothel of Madame Chun Yi (Betty Pei Ti). Chun wants her girls flawless and virginal. Finding that one of her minions had deflowered one of the girls en route, the madame kills him with her bare hands. She can literally put her fist through your body. She enjoys it, too, especially the taste of blood afterward.
Betty Pei-Ti as Madame Chun
Another thing Chun enjoys is the company of women. This ultimate exploiter of women happens to be a lesbian, apparently keeping some of the girls as her personal concubines, unless all of them take turns at the task. She's a Chinese amazon, stunningly beautiful and masterfully violent. She takes a special interest in the spunkiest and most defiant of the new recruits, poor little Ai Nu. It's not clear how soon her interest becomes sexual, because she doesn't scruple at selling her virginity to the highest bidder among four wealthy old men, regulars at the brothel. The winner submits a blank check; he can get away with it because his son's the provincial governor. All four men get their turn at Ai Nu, tying her up, whipping her, forcing themselves upon her, the brutality of it accentuated by freeze frames and harsh sound effects just before the act is done each time.
Madame Chun with bed-warmers (Ai Nu not included)
Afterward, Ai Nu tries to hang herself in her cell; the suicide attempt is scored with Leonard Bernstein's music from On the Waterfront. She's rescued by a mute male housekeeper who had tried to show her kindness earlier, after Chun had ordered her flogged. Now he reveals that he can speak, but had taken a vow of silence in atonement for errors that had cost him the love of his life. The hero of the film seems to have revealed himself as he promises to help Ai Nu escape the brothel. But he can't get her past Chun and her private army. The hero has a few skills himself, but he's no match for the madame nor her major-domo Bao Hu (Lin Tung), the master who trained her. Our would-be hero is promptly expiring on the snowy ground, urging Ai Nu not to kill herself or otherwise throw her life away, because then who'd be around to avenge him? As she sobs over his corpse, Chun gives her a simple choice: die now, or live on Chun's terms. Ai Nu chooses life.
Lily Ho (left) gives Betty Pei-Ti a fateful elbow nudge during a training exercise
Chun sets about remaking Ai Nu in her own image, teaching her kung fu and swordsmanship and taking her to bed. Once we learn this, the scene at the murdered man's house repeats itself and we return to the present, following Constable Ji (Hua Yueh) as he investigates Ai Nu's link to the victim. He discovers an imperious, arrogant beauty, far removed from the terrified country girl we first saw. When he demands that she prove that the victim was alive when she left him, she challenges him to prove that he wasn't. Now, we suppose, the hero has arrived, but we'll learn soon enough that this film doesn't have a hero.
Ai Nu has an emotional ferocity and a raw romanticism that I've rarely seen in Hong Kong action films. The fantastic martial-arts context takes the transgression of lesbianism and elevates it (or degrades it, depending on your political sensibilities) to the level of a supernatural attribute. Chun and Ai Nu are the most beautiful women and the mightiest warriors in the picture, as if their sexuality (however insincere it may be on Ai Nu's part) gives them extra power, particularly in a setting where no man seems to have a conventional domestic relationship. The men are either patrons of prostitutes like the four old men, or they're emotionally damaged characters like Bao Hu and the erstwhile mute, or else sexlessly ineffectual like the constable. Given the men around them, lesbianism looks less like mere deviance (though its deviance gives the film an extra charge) than the natural recourse of naturally superior women.
The brilliant thing about Kang Chien Chu's screenplay is the way he turns Chun from an outright villainess into a tragically clueless, noirishly romantic antiheroine. The madame -- what a sap! --has clearly fallen deeply and sincerely in love with her deceiving Galataea, and after the women slaughter all around them, you can't help but feel that Ai Nu isn't righteous but just a little mean to hit Chun with the truth at a vulnerable moment. Another moment will come, however, to make us wonder how sincere Ai Nu was about her insincerity -- and there'll be consequences for that, as well. It all works, maybe just because this is my king but also, as I hope any viewing would prove, because Betty Pei Ti and Lily Ho have real chemistry and throw themselves passionately into their roles. Chu Yuan does all he can to make them majestic and malignant all at once while maintaining a suspenseful balance between pastel sensuality and livid brutality.
Intimate Confessions is arguably part of Quentin Tarantino's universe, with the business of lopping off arms possibly having a direct influence on Kill Bill. I think I saw something else here that I saw there as well; the way Ai Nu completes Chun's sentence for her at a crucial moment reminded me of the eerie exchange between The Bride and O-ren Ishii in which one finishes the other's sentence ("Silly rabbit...Trix are for kids") in a way that suggests that the cereal slogan was a shared catchphrase. That moment always leaves me thinking that there was a subtext of something between the two assassins in Tarantino's film, and it may be that Ai Nu is the something, or a key to it. But this is all just stuff for speculation unless Tarantino has actually identified Ai Nu as an influence. Whether it influenced him or not doesn't change the fact that Intimate Confessions influenced me. It's now one of my favorite Hong Kong martial arts films.
The following DVD trailer barely scratches the surface, but it'll do until you see the movie. Triphibian uploaded this copy to YouTube.