By the time Chor Yuen’s Intimate Confessions of a Chinese Courtesan released in 1972, the image of wuxia in Hong Kong cinema had changed dramatically. Not only had the genre’s popularity waned as kung fu boxing movies became more popular than the chivalrous swordplay movies, but the ascendance of Chang Cheh at Shaw Brothers had changed the literal faces of the movies. Whereas past wuxia films tended to often star women warriors, Chang’s films were masculine to an almost absurd degree, focused on muscular men forming and breaking the bonds of brotherhood with their fists and swords. Women, if they were even present, were pushed to the margins. There’s no better example of this shift than Chang’s sequel to King Hu’s Come Drink with Me, Golden Swallow, which is named after Cheng Pei-pei’s heroine from the first film, but is entirely about the awesome, macho exploits of Wang Yu’s Silver Roc. The machismo of Chang’s films not only infected nearly everything else made at the studio, but was so overwhelming that it was impossible for critics to not find something homoerotic in these worlds without women, though Chang would later violently reject this assertion.
By contrast, the actually homoerotic Chinese Courtesan is in some ways a return to traditional form, centered as it is around a swordswoman, Lily Ho’s Ainu. Yet its recentering of the wuxia around women did not make it more akin to films like those of King Hu, as its specific milieu and explicit sexual themes pushed boundaries far beyond conservative Chang Cheh’s violent epics. While it has much of the set-bound look and social setting common of contemporaneous Hong Kong films, this rape-revenge story set in and around a brothel, whose heroine has been forced into the sex trade, is an outlier for the time. Indeed, it has perhaps more in common with Japanese exploitation films of the ’70s, like Lady Snowblood or Sex and Fury.
At the outset, Ainu is kidnapped and delivered, with many other women, to the Four Seasons brothel which is under the management of lesbian madam Chun Yi (Betty Pei Ti), who is also a skilled practitioner of kung fu. Ainu raises hell and puts up a fight, but she is eventually sold to several powerful men and raped. After a failed escape attempt aided by the only not horrifically evil person at the brothel, Ainu seeks revenge on the men, killing them one by one when she comes to them under the guise of sex work, the police completely powerless to stop her for reasons that are largely silly and contrived. At the same time, she begins a sexual relationship with Chun Yi, who has become enamored with Ainu and begins to teach her martial arts, proudly unaware that Ainu is simply saving her death for last.
The film’s outlook on sex work is excoriating and far from nuanced, but nuance is hardly the point. Sex work is in the margins of other Shaw productions, just as an accepted part of the society in which they take place. But by and large, those chaste films are uninterested in exploring that world. Intimate Confessions of a Chinese Courtesan forgoes the usual metaphysical or historical meaning-making of both popular wuxia and kung fu in favor of a more grounded, angry exploration of sex trafficking in the same historical setting. The men who use the brothel are monstrous and the women who run it are no better, keeping their kidnapped courtesans in cages and beating them when they step out of line. Chor doesn’t linger on the violence visited on Ainu, using quick freeze frames in lieu of drawn out scenes of assault, and portrays the few glimpses of sex performed by the other trafficked women as equally horrific. It’s a rarity among the genre as a movie that resists a sexualized gaze toward its violence, with even the recurring jokes about bondage and kink made at the expense of the men Ainu kills.
Chor delivers on the most basic, important aspect of the Shaw product as well, with memorable swordplay scenes leading up to a final brawl that’s among the most violent and thrilling in the studio’s catalog. The bloody brutality of the climax is shot medium-close and performed with a visceral, breakneck ferocity unlike the graceful combat of stereotypical wuxia or the staccato rhythms of Shaw’s kung fu, emphasizing the single-minded ruthlessness of Ainu’s revenge over skill or athleticism. Even amidst such raucous action, Intimate Confessions of a Chinese Courtesan remains great to look at; the familiar Shaw Brothers sets were rarely photographed this well. And then there’s the final duel between Ainu and Chun Yi, so intense as to feature several severed limbs: shot through the pink silk curtains of the brothel’s decorated sets, it offers a striking summation of the film’s juxtaposition of the genre’s past femininity with the contemporary era’s increased bloodlust.
Part of Kicking the Canon – The Film Canon.