Judge William Lee can lick his own wounds, thank you very much.
"Never could I imagine the damage love could inflict."
Another classic from the vaults of the Shaw Brothers, Hong Kong's most prolific martial arts-oriented studio, Intimate Confessions of a Chinese Courtesan ventures into taboo territory with a story about lesbian lovers in a high-class brothel. The title implies racier material than the movie actually delivers. What it lacks in dramatic subtlety and erotic delight, it more than makes up with superbly choreographed kung fu action that brings down the whorehouse.
Facts of the Case
Lady Chun (Betty Pei Ti), the strict and lusty madam of the Four Seasons brothel, takes more than a professional interest in her newest acquisition. Kidnapped by Lady Chun's thugs to be turned out as one of their prostitutes, Ai Nu (Lily Ho) is a peasant girl with a ferocious temper. Lady Chun knows her fresh spirit and soft looks will garner a high price from the brothel's wealthy clients. When Ai Nu's escape attempt fails, she reluctantly submits to Lady Chun's instruction and is remade as a refined courtesan. Her training in the art of seduction also includes lessons in the martial arts.
The suspicious death of an aristocrat leads the local police official to the brothel where Ai Nu is the prime suspect. Protected by Lady Chun, who has fallen in love with her protegé, Ai Nu continues to take revenge on the lecherous rich men who raped her. When the future of the brothel is threatened, will the women face off as adversaries or fight together as lovers?
The movie's English title is more suggestive than its original title, Ai Nu, named after its heroine. There's not much in the way of confessions since the plot concerns a police murder investigation during which Ai Nu is mostly uncooperative. As for the intimacy, the women have one kissing scene—and another when one licks the other's wounds—to demonstrate any sensuality. Most of the time, there are sly looks and playful nudges to suggest a sexual bond. It is probably safe to assume that in 1970s Chinese popular culture, lesbianism was still a taboo subject. In context, this early example of Hong Kong erotic cinema would have received some controversy for its daring depiction of female sexuality, but by today's standard it is rather tame.
Despite the title's promise, the titillation factor is low. The moment when Ai Nu and Lady Chun kiss exhibits the soft-focus fantasy feeling of a glossy perfume ad. The background players show some skin during scenes that are more campy than erotic. In a sequence that may remind viewers of classic 1970s women-in-prison movies, there is a variation on the strip search scene. With the new girls stripped and tied down, Lady Chun inspects them by candlelight to make sure the "merchandise" hasn't been damaged in transport. Walking the fine line between eroticism and cruelty, the scene is a bit of a shocker in its display of the dehumanizing treatment of the captive girls. However, it never quite reaches the level of classic exploitation cinema. Similarly, the scenes where Ai Nu is raped lean toward humor more than realism. The four wealthy clients are depicted as comical, dastardly and depraved men. It wouldn't be a stretch to imagine their Western equivalents stroking their moustaches after tying a girl to railroad tracks. Using a technique that again reinforces the movie's campy attitude toward violence, the rape scenes end in freeze-frame before the action becomes too graphic.
Intimate Confessions isn't the long-lost soft-core sex film from the Shaw Brothers studio, despite its reputation as the inspiration for the Hong Kong cult favorite Naked Killer (unseen by this reviewer). Nevertheless, this is an enjoyable action film with engaging performances by its leads. Lily Ho as Ai Nu does a nice transformation from the tough but frightened girl into the cold, confident, sexy killer. Betty Pei Ti as Lady Chun is effective as the brutal authoritarian who lets her guard down for the new girl. Best of all, both women are convincing fighters.
The movie is not wall-to-wall action but the story moves along at a very brisk pace. When the swords do come out, the fight choreography does not disappoint. Limited use of wire work and trampoline stunts keeps the flavor of a Shaw Brothers throw-down. The ground level view of the melee makes it feel more real. The actors' moves are not lightning fast but they are energetic enough to sell the sense of danger. The blood that is spilled is just the right shade of red to look fake but satisfyingly vivid. The final battle is simply awesome. It is well worth the wait to see Lady Chun and Ai Nu against the dozens of Chun's henchmen and slave traders. Lady Chun is skilled in the Ghost Hands—a technique whereby her hands are used like daggers that can stab into her opponent's flesh—and that's a trick not to be taken lightly.
The image quality of this DVD is quite good considering the age of the elements. Showing no physical damage, no stray dust or jitter, the picture is consistently clean and stable. However, the image is a touch on the soft side. Also, in darker scenes, a minor amount of grain appears in the blacks. The powder-hued pink, lavender and cream-colored fabrics of the women's costumes make the world of the brothel appear like a carefully veiled fantasy. It's an appropriate contrast with the earthy tones of the men's costumes and the outside world. The cinematography makes great use of the widescreen (Shawscope) frame. Foreground and background are always filled with interesting details and it is rare to see a composition that focuses on only a single element. An extra dimension is added with the placement of elements in the extreme foreground. So even when the performers are fighting in a wide shot, the elements framed closer to the camera seemingly place the viewer's perspective right in the middle of the action.
The audio is less satisfying and of the two choices, the Mandarin soundtrack is much preferred. I suspect the stereo mix was fabricated from an original mono source for this DVD release. It sounds fine but it isn't much better than mono and it does not add any dimensionality to the movie's soundscape. The alternate audio track is an English dub that is amusing to hear in short spells but is quite terrible overall. The voices just don't fit well with the physical performances, but viewers who want to turn up the camp factor of this movie might get some mileage from the dub.
The featurette "Intimate Confessions of Three Shaw Girls" offers some insight on the reaction to this movie during its day but it is ultimately inconsequential. In recent interviews, actresses Shaw Yin-Yin, Candice Yu and Lily Li share their thoughts on the impact of Intimate Confessions. However, none of them were actually in the movie. It's like hearing Bond girls talk about the 007 franchise in general even if their own involvement was limited. An interesting thing to note is that Yu and Li starred in Lust for Love of a Chinese Courtesan which was the 1984 remake of Intimate Confessions by the same director, Chu Yuan. The theatrical trailer for Intimate Confessions is included among the pile of Hong Kong action movie trailers from the Shaw Brothers and other studios.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
We don't look to the Shaw Brothers for complex drama and this movie won't change that. The story is painted in fairly broad strokes and the acting is typical of the Hong Kong style of melodrama. Ai Nu's transformation happens very quickly and is demonstrated in one montage sequence. This hurried manner of storytelling also shortchanges the relationship between Ai Nu and Lady Chun. Just when the movie seems ready to deal with their lesbian love affair it turns away and leaves the viewer to fill in the gaps. There are also a few hints at the back story of Lady Chun but the moment for its elaboration never comes.
Though it is light on the human drama and doesn't quite live up to the erotic promises of its title, Intimate Confessions is still a well-directed and entertaining martial arts movie. The beautiful cinematography and the quick pacing help to hide the shortcomings of the story and the exciting action scenes make you forget everything else.
Killer finishing moves make this tale of revenge so very sweet indeed. Celestial Pictures is recognized for dusting off another Shaw Brothers gem but the half-hearted bonus features leave us wanting. All things considered, this disc is acquitted.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Image Entertainment
• Intimate Confessions of Three Shaw Girls
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