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.
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.
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.
Intimate Confessions of a Chinese Courtesan (1972) was the first foray into lesbian content for Shaw Brothers, the Hollywood-style production giant that churned out countless kung fu classics from its Hong Kong studio. Copping to the villain-or-victim trope that governed gay film and television characters of the period, the Mandarin-language feature pitted Pei Ti’s Lady Chun, the brutal madam of a medieval Chinese brothel, against the most defiant of her many captives, a teacher’s daughter named Ai Nu, or “love slave” (Shaw sex kitten Lily Ho). After Ai Nu is caned at Lady Chun’s behest, then raped by her, then sedated and raped by the elderly father of a local politician, then restrained and raped by the three gentlemen who hadn’t bid as adventurously, she pledges to avenge herself. She becomes Lady Chun’s lover and protégé in work and in swordplay, turning her rapists into exclusive clients and killing each of them in the clutch of their gratification. Lady Chun is last on her list, but also vice-versa. Dying of the wounds she taught Ai Nu to dispense, the older woman beckons her for a final kiss. With her tongue, Lady Chun slips Ai Nu the crushed sediment of a poison pill.
What makes a murderess? That Lady Chun should kill by tongue and not by sword suggests one answer: womanly murder is sneaky, not noble; emotional, not exertive; personal, not public. Though some women can fight like men, and better, too—witness Ai Nu cutting down the brothel’s robed pimps and lacquered columns on her way to Lady Chun—they are ruled ultimately by the feminine, and in a limited reading of Confessions the ingénue-turned-warrior must shed her ingenuousness on this point and give up manly victory, lest the film become revolutionary. But because Ai Nu’s killer is a woman, the film carries a different revolutionary strain, in which men are already defeated and maleness is the only threat that remains. It is not the feminine within Ai Nu that weakens and kills her, but the feminine without, the super-feminine love of women for women, which Ai Nu betrays by only pretending to love the vicious, adoring Lady Chun. Ai Nu does not die because she is a woman, but because she is not woman enough to combine violence with love.
In the rape-revenge section of the exploitation film library, Lady Chun has little company on the shelf for lesbian antagonists belonging secretly to the political vanguard. Her subgeneric sisters are more likely to resemble the sociopathic vixen Ray Parkins, who in 1982’s Sudden Impact rapes two sisters, butchers one of them, and ten years later says to the other, “So, the bitch is here. Tell me, how’s your slut sister?” However, aggression easily cohabits with affection in women-in-prison films, where wholesome new convicts enter homosocial worlds that either break them or are broken—or something in between, as in one of the earliest women-in-prison entries, John Cromwell’s Caged (1950). Bette Davis refused a role in the “dyke movie,” described blusteringly by the trailer’s male voiceover: “Here women without men live only for the moment of freedom while the bars of their cage seem to close into them in a mad swirling pattern of terror.” That terror emanates in Caged from a sadistic dyke matron, and a manipulative dyke prisoner, toward the soft-spoken naïf Marie, whom it bewitches—head shaved, Marie gets parole by accepting a job on the outside that is actually a front for shoplifting. The warden instructs her secretary to keep Marie’s file open: “She’ll be back.” By Caged logic, return is a form of mastery.
As for Ai Nu, she is too dead and the brothel too ruined for any returning. Still, she has been initiated into a system, and its conventions offer her solace beyond the fiction of escape through revenge and death. As they do for the viewer; escape may be the narrative premise of Confessions, but the rewards of the film are more lasting. For instance, the seaweed wash on the opening scene: green snow coats chattering green branches and the unbreathing green belly of Ai Nu’s first kill, an open roof above. The scene repeats later in natural color and in context and chronology, but for now this is death without life preceding, and so iconic and continuous. Also: the mutant pinks of the silken brothel uniforms, the slinking movements of the women wearing them, the two-stringed violins wobbling offstage in time with that slinking; the wax-museum tears pasted to Ai Nu’s cheek when she is caned; the cymbals and funky brass that sound when she kills; the freeze-frame that jostles in and out when she’s raped. Aesthetic pleasure is so discordant with the film’s subject, and each facet of that pleasure so exactingly enforced, that we learn to sublimate. We enjoy even as we deplore. We learn the regulations.
To disarm Lady Chu in the final fight, Ai Nu literally de-arms her. The act is gruesome, and no less so for being weirdly bloodless; under each of Lady Chu’s shoulders gape inky red ovals giving no fluid. Quentin Tarantino says he watched hundreds of Shaw Brothers films in the run-up to shooting his Kill Bill series. This makes sense. Tarantino’s genre mash-up produces an extremity fog beneath which all features are extreme, but only some are visible—just as, in Confessions, dry lips barely graze powdered cheeks while a mute prison guard is impaled in the groin and disemboweled. Yet the sex seems realer and the gore faker than all that. This messaging strategy is the film’s most dearly held regulation, and the brothel’s as well. Love is concealed and violence is glorified, because that’s how the vulnerable become powerful, and that’s how the powerful become more powerful. Ai Nu says to Lady Chu in her first and final confession, “I wanted to use hatred for revenge but I failed. Then I came up with the most brilliant idea in the whole world. I used love to take my revenge.” Then she dies anyway, not having loved anyone but herself.
- "INTIMATE CONFESSIONS OF A CHINESE COURTESAN (Ai Nu, 1972)", MONDO 70: A Wild World of Cinema, 4 February 2011.
- Daniel Wenger, "Love Slave", n+1 magazine, 17 February 2014.
- See Kam Tan, "Memorialization, melancholia and melancholizing in Shaw Brothers' fengyue (erotic) films", Screen (2013) 54 (1): 82-103, 1 March 2013.
- Kenneth Chan, "Remade in Hollywood: The Global Chinese Presence in Transnational Cinemas", Hong Kong University Press, 1 July 2009.
- Howard Chiang, Ari Larissa Heinrich, "Queer Sinophone Cultures", Routledge, 2014.
- John Snadden, "Enchanting Shadows: The Films of the Shaw Brothers", Heroic Cinema, 14 March 2014.
- Toh Hai Leong, "Erotic Cinema of Li Han Hsiang and Chu Yuan", FilmsAsia/Kinema, 2004 ,.
This article was written by Roy Tan.