By Chris Hyde
August 19, 2003
After many months of watching Shaw Brothers films only on the small screen, Heroic Grace -- Celestial’s traveling exhibition of digitally remastered 35mm prints -- comes around and affords an opportunity to see some of the Hong Kong studio’s productions in all their big screen glory. First up: the guilty pleasures of a Chinese martial arts piece set in a brothel run by a lesbian madame.
Regular readers of this space may already be tiring of the endless succession of pieces detailing the recent return of Shaw Brothers material to home availability (side note: they’re releasing 700 films to DVD, so get used to it!), but may not be aware that there is also a selection of new prints struck to celluloid that has been making the rounds in cities across the nation. This traveling picture show contains some of the highlights of the Shaw Brothers ‘60s and ‘70s output, including such plums as Come Drink with Me, Escorts Over Tiger Hills, One-Armed Swordsman and The 36th Chamber of Shaolin. Also included are two interesting early rarities from the silent era -- Swordswoman of Huangjiang and Red Knight-Errantthat -- demonstrate the long running attraction of the martial arts in Chinese film. But in addition to these historical touchstones and
genre-defining films, the exhibition also includes at least one piece that shows off the exploitation side of the studios’ output: Yuen Chor’s Intimate Confessions of a Chinese Courtesan.
After setting the stage with a brief opening sequence washed of color, the film opens with a band of thugs delivering some prized contraband to the beautiful Lady Chun (icily portrayed here by Betty Pei Ti). The illicit material turns out to be kidnapped young women destined to become fodder for Lady Chun’s exclusive brothel, though one of the captives (Ainu, played by Lily Ho) is so angry at having been taken that she struggles fiercely against her captors. This instantly catches the madame’s eye, and though she locks up this virgin with the rest, it’s obvious that she is smitten with an immediate penchant for her new charge. Still, this attraction doesn’t in any way keep her from forcing Ainu into prostitution and selling her off to the four highest bidders in the area, so that they may take whatever pleasure from her that they wish.
After these creepy old letches have nastily ravished the unfortunate Ainu, she is so distraught that she attempts suicide, only to be saved by the mute boy who works in the brothel. They form a quick friendship, and this seemingly silent character turns out to be extremely sympathetic to young Ainu’s plight. Unfortunately, their poorly planned escape attempt goes quickly awry, and after a brief sword battle the man is hastily dispatched -- but not before he can ask Ainu not to kill herself so that she might eventually take her revenge. With her chance at freedom scuttled, Ainu ultimately acquiesces to Lady Chun’s offer of training in the skills of high class whoring and allows herself to become intimately involved with her employer. Utterly blinded by her lust for Ainu, Lady Chun cannot see that it is retribution that is driving the young woman’s change of heart, and along the way she also foolishly gives her training in martial arts skills.
The remaining portion of the movie follows Ainu on her grrl power quest to rid the planet of the four rapists who treated her so shabbily after her initial entrance into this house of ill repute. She also sets her sights on destroying the brothel itself, and she insidiously uses her purported love for Lady Chun to mask her traitorous intentions. Along the way a police inspector comes to do some nominal investigation of the aristocratic bodies that tend to appear in Ainu’s wake, but with the political protection that comes from being the region’s most desirable hooker, Ainu manages somehow to cover up her murders with little more than a delicate giggle and a fluttering hand. Eventually all this maneuvering leads to the inevitable climactic showdown, with the highflying hack and slash of the final reel displaying lots of fancy swordplay and arterial spray as the film reaches its tragic conclusion.
While certainly not attaining the artistic heights of some of the other great films that the Shaw Brothers produced during their heyday, Intimate Confessions nonetheless does indeed offer plenty to recommend it. The raw artificiality of the studio setting of this movie demonstrates distinctly the high production value and attention to detail that marks the studio’s output, and director Yuen Chor’s stylish use of color and lighting add a spectacular touch to the proceedings. Additionally, the fight sequences are choreographed very nicely here, and aside from a little lag time early on the action moves briskly enough that the movie is over before you know it. The cast of Shaw regulars is excellent throughout the picture as well, with Betty Pei Ti’s performance especially of note as she coldly plays the cruel lesbian villainess that runs the whole show. But besides these more highbrow attractions, the film also offers some lesser qualities that add to its entertainment value; there’s the occasional bad bit of subtitling that gives an unintentional chuckle or two, plus plenty of slightly sleazy titillation as topless courtesans cavort with their johns and Ainu and Lady Chun lock their lips in sapphic embrace.
All of the above characteristics would have easily been enough to get this fan out to the theater to see the restored print of this film, but at the local screening of Intimate Confessions there was even one final reason to attend. Prior to the film we were treated to a brief demonstration of sword skills and dance put on by a group of students from an area martial arts school. While in any instance this would have been interesting in its own right, this particular display was especially worthy of note because the woman who led the troupe was Bow Sik-mark, who is renowned as one of the world’s greatest teachers of martial arts skills. She is also well known for her intimate association with perhaps her most famous pupil -- for she is the mother of actor/fight choreographer Donnie Yen, a film veteran who appears in many notable Hong Kong films as well as the long-awaited Hero. (Yen has also recently appeared in the Hollywood films Blade II and Shanghai Nights, and did the action choreography for The Princess Blade that is currently playing in some limited North American locations).
While the added bonus of this demonstration made attendance of this screening of Intimate Confessions of a Chinese Courtesan a no-brainer for this writer, any viewers lucky enough to have this slightly lesser Shaw Brothers entertainment come to their town shouldn’t hesitate to go check it out on its own merits. Though somewhat short of being able to be ranked with the best the studio ever produced, it’s an action-filled bit of Asian exploitation that contains plenty of fun and exciting moments. The myriad attractions of the two female leads coupled with the solid (if not groundbreaking) story easily provide enough substance to make the outing an enjoyable one, and many thanks go out to the decision makers who chose to strike a new print of this more prurient fare along with the other classics that they have decided to remaster for this traveling show. Truly, there are few pleasures in today’s cinema world that can rival the current rediscovery of the great Shaw Brothers studio’s fantastic output, and whether on DVD or in sparkling new 35mm prints any fan of Hong Kong film should consider themselves fortunate to live in an era where this wonderful material can be viewed once again. I know I sure do.