Friday, February 4, 2011


Shaw Bros. saddled Chu Yuan's (or Yuen Chor's) remarkable film with a title reminiscent of Victorian erotica, perhaps hoping to sell it as erotica in English-language markets. The film definitely does have its erotic moments, but when it counts, sensuality takes second place to savagery in this revenge epic and, if anything, makes the savagery more savage.

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.

As Ji finds his investigation impeded by the social standing of the victim's circle, Ai Nu carries out a spree of revenge on the four men who first violated her. She varies the m.o. to keep people guessing, tying one up and setting him on fire to avenge his tying her up, but allowing another to love himself to death with three insatiable women and an overdose of aphrodisiacs. Finally, Ji finds her practically red-handed with the fourth victim, whom she'd whipped to death in a room locked from the inside as the constables desperately try to break in. Denying nothing, she only dares him to follow her to the real criminals. She leads the constables to the latest shipment of fresh females for the brothel, which she attacks. Leaving Ji to mop up, she races back to the brothel, where Bao Hu has been warning Chun about Ai Nu's dangerous intentions. Chun won't believe a word of it. She and Ai Nu are like one and the same person! Why not? Chun has created a peer for herself; that may have been the only way she'd ever find someone she could truly love. So when the constables arrive to storm the brothel, and Bao Hu with all his men insists that Ai Nu has betrayed them all, Chun can only stand by her woman at all costs.

There's a moment when the women warriors stand back to back, gravely outnumbered, and one gives the other an affectionate elbow in the side, and the other returns the gesture. It's like William Holden saying, "Let's go," and Warren Oates answering, "Why not?" It's a Wild Bunch moment, or a Sword of Doom moment if you want to keep the context Asiatic. It's the moment before Armageddon as the two women psyche themselves up for an amoklauf.

And before long it's down to Bao Hu against the women, a hopeless situation. But he doesn't go down without an epic bloodbath and a crippling blow, slicing off Chun's arm just as she's run it through his body up to her elbow. A bit of a setback, that, but Chun takes it like a trouper, worried only that Ai Nu might stop loving her now that she's a little handicapped. Of course not, Ai Nu coos. She won't stop loving Chun -- because she never did love her. It was -- duh!!! -- all a ruse to set up her revenge against all her oppressors, with the worst one saved for last. It was a nice plan, but for all that revenge is something you kinda have to boast about, this isn't exactly something you should admit so bluntly to someone who still has one good arm....

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.


Kingwho? said...

Nice post! I watched Intimate Confessions for the first time this week on a friends recommendation. I have had the vcd for forever but finally gave it a look and it was excellent. I was pushed toward the film as it had similarities w/ another HK film, Naked Killer.

venoms5 said...

Great write up, Sam! The Chinese title translates to LOVE SLAVE. The movie was also known as BODY & SWORD during production and was promoted for a while with that title. The severing of the arms goes back to ONE ARMED SWORDSMAN in '67. It seemed that after Chang Cheh splashed blood and guts everywhere, every filmmaker at Shaw was coming up with creatively gory deaths for their movies. Still, this movie was a turning point for Chu Yuan. Prior to this, his other actioners were gory formula pictures. Still very good, though, but his true Wuxia style didn't take shape till 1976 with KILLER CLANS. COURTESAN is a classic warm up.

I got the IVL and the Image disc. I tried to pick up the Aussie disc, but got ripped off by the ebay seller and never got it, or the other Aussie discs I ordered.

Samuel Wilson said...

Kingwho? I'd seen Confessions in stores for a couple of years but didn't give it a chance until I had Netflix. Still haven't seen Naked Killer myself, though it's about time I fixed that. Thanks for writing.

venom: I got the meaning of the title from Craig Reid's book, which didn't really do this movie justice. I trace the Kill Bill influence to this film because of the double arm cut on the victim. This is the second film I've seen from Chu Yuan; I reviewed The Lizard back in the early days of the blog and I remember liking that one, too.

cole roulain said...

this sounds incredible. i can't wait to see it.

venoms5 said...

The Craig Reid book is pretty much useless, if attractively packaged if you've seen all the movies in there. I bought it hoping to get some additional insight into the films, but there was little to none there.

I have close to 200 of the old Shaw Brothers movie magazines from the late 60s through the mid 80s and they got tons of great stuff in those, although much of it is in Chinese language only.

CONFESSIONS was heavily hyped at the time and the title seemed to change regularly. It started with the BODY & SWORD title then got changed to the LOVE SLAVE moniker before landing the more famous international English translated title. It was a huge deal at the time, too, judging by the way the Shaw's were ballyhooing the lesbianism aspect in their publications.

If you can, check out Chu's DUEL FOR GOLD and THE KILLER aka SACRED KNIVES OF VENGEANCE (both 1971) to see what else he did prior to finding his signature style with KILLER CLANS (1976). THE KILLER never got a DVD release. There's really nice quality versions out there for it, though. I got a lobby set for it as well as the Warner Brothers Press kit for the film. It's a good and bloody basher flick.

Chu's Wuxia movies got really silly and outrageous in the 80s though. His WEB OF DEATH from 1976 is my favorite. I highly recommend that one. It's one of the wildest HK fantasy Wuxia's ever made and one of the most colorful.

Sun Chung was another who did a few formula movies before defining his style with JUDGMENT OF AN ASSASSIN in 1977. THE DEVIL'S MIRROR (1972) is really good, brainless fun and well worth checking out. It's a horror/fantasy style Wuxia. THE BLOODY ESCAPE (1975) is another formula actioner with Chen Kuan Tai and Shi Szu. It was started by Chang Cheh and Sun Chung in 1973, but didn't get finished till 1975 and Sun was given sole credit for it, yet it doesn't look anything like one of his movies. I assume Shaw wanted their "green" directors to prove themselves so to speak before allowing them to do a movie their way.

Just in case you're not familiar with Sun Chung, you will absolutely LOVE his AVENGING EAGLE from 1978. That's his most famous movie, I'd say.