Torn from the smoldering pages of history, when the world was young and passion was the law of the land.
In Feudal China, Chin Lien is a conniving, oversexed harlot who insults her rice seller husband Wu Ta and longs to bed her brother in law, Captain of the Governor's Guard Wu Sing. When he rejects her advances, she takes up with wealthy Men Ching. Eventually, the cuckolded husband finds out, and Chin Lien poisons him. This drives Wu Sing insane and he goes on a killing spree. He is branded a murderer and imprisoned. Chin becomes Men Ching's fifth wife, and this disrupts his hedonistic household. The other wives hate Chin Lien, and spread vicious rumors about her. Men Ching enjoys wild drunken orgies with numerous partners, and eventually he grows tired of Chin Lien. When new wife #6 gives him a son, Chin Lien kills it by placing a cat in its nursery. Meanwhile, anarchy reigns in the countryside as bandits, vowing to help the poor, raid and slaughter government convoys. Hoping to get back in her husband's good graces (and bed), Chin asks him to kill Wu Sing. Unfortunately, the bandits release Wu Sing and he continues his brutal ways, leaving a trail of bodies which leads to the House of Men Ching, and Chin Lien.
The Notorious Concubines is really two movies. The first film is a slow, arcane muddle about wives, warlords, and wanton lust. Nothing much happens, and scenes go on forever with no real point. The second film, starting about 50 minutes in, is a visionary and intriguing tale, half Fellini-esque characters and imagery, half psychotic Shogun warrior. The two never reconcile themselves, and this makes Concubines an overall unsatisfying movie. If there were more of the last half's visual imagination, and nudity throughout, it would truly be a sensual and seductive epic. As it is, the multiple flashbacks within storytelling format is confusing, and requires an abacas and Sic Bo chart just to keep track of the players. There is also some incredibly bad dubbing, with important dialogue often masked by loud musical or effects cues. You will find yourself trudging through a great deal of dreary material to experience a smidgen of cinematic magic. The final images of a demonic Wu Sing wailing down his countryside of carnage are incredible. But it's not enough to redeem the previous 76 minutes of static. A dearth of carnality and inert, lifeless sex scenes leave one confused, not amused, and this is especially so for a picture with Harry Novak's name attached to it (in truth, Novak did not produce this film: he merely presents it).
As a secondary feature, the DVD presents Violated Paradise, an hour-long travelogue of bewilderment that's title is its most exploitative aspect. Obviously combining a National Geographic style look at the native peoples of Japan, a documentary on the divers of a poor fishing village, and some seedy Tokyo nightclub tawdriness, it shifts so violently from tone to tone that you'd think the local Sumo were doing jumping jacks. Just as we learn something interesting or honest about the life of a geisha, or a rural fisherman, a pretentious, overbearing male voice abruptly castigates us about the number of performers in Japan's entertainment industry. The nudity presented here is strictly the "gone native" sort. Along with this protracted life lesson, we get five additional archival short subjects. And strangely enough, those looking for the sex and salaciousness promised in Concubines will find it here. One look at these wild, wandering strip and sleaze shows will confirm that, while the US is a pack of puritanical prudes, when it comes to sexual hang ups, we have NOTHING on Asians. Viewers will understand that the Far East likes their women 1) supine, either in bed or on the floor, 2) bundled up in an elaborate series of foundations, garters and ceremonial dress shields, and 3) as hairy as a Greenwich Village leather man. These are no Americanized looks at Oriental beauty. Some of these Yamahama Mamas could give Bigfoot a run for his furry pelt.
The Notorious Concubines is presented in anamorphic widescreen, and looks decent, if not outstanding. At the beginning, there are some age defects and emulsion scratches, but eventually the film smoothes out. The image is diffused and not defined enough. And, quite interestingly, you will find some David Lynch / Eyes Wide Shut style genital "blurring" (done at the time of the film's initial release) during one of the orgy scenes. Violated Paradise, on the other hand, looks like it was locked in an underground crypt with the 47 Ronin. It is awash with scrapes, dirt, and highly irritating editing jumps. The color is steely blue gray, as if all the red and yellow was rinsed from the negative. The rest of the feature's prints are decent, with some of the older black and white shorts looking especially good. Something Weird Video's DVD offers a very beautiful, elaborately animated opening menu that, honestly, overplays these films as important corporeal classics. In reality, they are niche titles, for those interested in the Japanese take on the exploitation film and oriental fetishism. Others will find these Concubines more flawed than infamous.
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