[Originally published in Movietone News 35, September 1974]
A procession of horses and men winds through the gate and into the large courtyard of the Four Seasons brothel. They come to a halt; dozens of big wooden crates are simultaneously lowered to the ground. We watch a man break one open. Contents: one (1) cringing maiden. The new shipment has arrived.
Among those uncrated is the courtesan of the title, Ai Nu. But this one don’t cringe, boys. Out she steps, mad as hell, and it takes the best efforts of several of the pack train’s ruffianly marauders to restrain her.
Along comes the unruffleable madame of the establishment. Total cool; total authority, That’s wasted on Ai Nu, who attacks her like a wildcat. The battle is joined.
Basically, Intimate Confessions of a Chinese Courtesan is just another revenge story, melodrama with some gore and kung-fu thrown in: more Shaw Brothers product. It’s a bit like Hannie Caulder, though, with a woman as avenger. Some men brutalize her; she gets lessons from a master in the martial arts; she takes revenge on the men, serially.
But how about, her prime antagonist is not a man but a woman; and that’s who instructs her in the martial arts? And … lies with her. Curiouser and curiouser.
Well, they uncrate this feisty new girl, and she’s clearly a menace to the icy madame’s tightly run ship. But she ‘s also clearly the pearl of the shipment. How to tame her?
If anybody can, the madame can. She’s the commandant of a concentration camp, and we first see her in long-focus, gliding in languorous slowmotion through the Sternbergian décor of her boudoir, gazing at her image in a mirror, holding a large, radiantly white flower first to one side, then the other, of her lustrous black hair.
Ultra-feminine (the madame) meets impetuous, defiant masculine (the new girl, Ai Nu). But the “masculine” qualities, posing force against force, are impotent here. The madame, Chun-i, presides without mercy over satanic black mills. We see a roomful of nude young women, sitting listlessly in tubs. “More alum in the water!” cries Chun-i.
A crone inspects pinioned young women’s privates. Here’s one who isn’t a maiden! The name of the guilty man is extorted from the unlucky girl. It’s one of the pack-train kidnappers, and he’s lounging around outside with the others, awaiting payment. Chun-i steps into the courtyard, confronts him calmly, and suddenly there is one of those vaulting leaps that kung-fu flicks specialize in, and a graceful series of movements, and the astonished man stands impaled by Chun-i’s sword.
Ai Nu will not cooperate. Chun-i shows her, through a peephole, what her rebelliousness will earn. In a tiny bare cell, a brutish, sweating, naked fat man clambers over the pale body of a girl with a miserable drugged-looking expression.
Ai Nu spits in the madame’s face. That tears it. Still expressionless, Chun-i has her flogged. But now we learn something new and unexpectedly perverse. Chun-i approaches. She strokes the lovely, lacerated bare back and murmurs, from a masklike face, her admiration. And … yech! licks the blood, lovingly, from a welt. Ai Nu winces with both pain and revulsion. She’s still an innocent.
Finally the struggle comes to a head. Ai Nu finds a male ally and they try to escape. He is cut down in his gore. The madame offers Ai Nu the ultimate choice, submit or die.
Cut. No transition, no “time passed”: cut. From the bloody courtyard fight, to Chun-i’s gauzy boudoir. Ai Nu and Chun-i, the two lovely antagonists, on a bed, lovebirds. Two masks now, smooth as ice. Stroking, caressing, twining, kissing.
This cut from courtyard to boudoir is the vital center of the movie. Ai Nu, the free spirit incarnate abruptly broken. “Broken.” It’s this moment of humiliation, of touching absolute, dissolute bottom, that festers behind the svelte façade of the “new” Ai Nu.
With her capitulation, of course, she evades the life of the cell. Chun-i delivers her new protégée in turn to four local dignitaries, the brothel’s most prestigious clients, and Ai Nu becomes available only to them. Each, in his own authentically male, alienated style, violates her. The remainder of Courtesan is ostensibly the story of how she avenges each of the violations.
But in those terms, it’s rather halfheartedly worked out. We never even learn how the first of the four murders is accomplished. An oddly poetic, sepiatoned precredits sequence shows us, instead, a policeman arriving to make inquiries at the house of the murdered man while snow drifts through its open roof and covers his body. We do watch Ai Nu consummate her grudge against the other three, and in each case the actual murder is preceded by a freezeframe memory of the violation.
One man is set afire spreadeagled, hands and feet tied down: the same position in which she was unfeelingly taken. Another, a small, rich old man, is lured into disporting himself with four coworkers from the brothel and dies when he overextends his capacities; Ai Nu never even lays a finger on him. The last awaits her dressed in full battle regalia and surrounded by armed servants. She isn’t going to get him. But she winds him around her finger, caricatured femininity entrapping caricatured lustful maleness. How could he believe she would want to kill him, irresistible him? He dismisses the servants. Look, she’s only a woman, she has no weapons. If you don’t believe I’m unarmed, search me. An erotic movement. Please, search me. She slides off part of a garment. Victim Number Four’s eyes bulge. No, not so fast, slowly, don’t be so impatient. Embrace. She slides a long pin out of her elaborately coiffured hair. Pase de la muerte.
No, it’s all too easy; the males are sitting ducks. A young policeman keeps pursuing her; she teases and bamboozles him, talks rings around him. He catches her, as he thinks, redhanded, walking away from a murder. She giggles like a geisha, behind a limp hand. She slips her beautifully red-brocaded, delicate wrists into his handcuffs.
The real battle is with Chun-i, the madame, and the real fascination of the movie, too. Their power games, their love games … the dialectic of male/female; mistress/slave; pretence/authenticity. We see them actually fight three times, and the third time, it’s to the death.
The first time, Chun-i is instructing her protégée in the martial arts. They go through some exercises, pause a moment—back to back, sisters—rub shoulders, bump girlishly, smile and resume combat.
The second time, Chuni-i creeps into Ai Nu’s room at night with a knife and misses her sleeping head by inches. Ai Nu springs to her feet and a first-class kung-fu fight ensues. Chun-i explains, when the fight is over, that she has deduced herself to be the logical final victim of Ai Nu’s vendetta. Just “testing” to verify who remains the better fighter. But Ai Nu is reassuring. Kill her beloved Chun-i? Would she kill herself? They are the same person!
When she has murdered the last of her four dignitaries, Ai Nu leads the young policeman and his cohorts back to the courtyard of the Four Seasons, where a new shipment of kidnapped girls has just arrived. A confusing, roiling sword fight, during which the madame betrays her faithful admirer and lieutenant Pao Fu and defends her real lover, Ai Nu. The two stand back-to-back again; they rub backs, bump shoulders, and go slicing, kicking, stabbing their way through the mob of kidnappers and policemen.
But their own long-delayed confrontation comes at last. In—where else?—the madame’s Sternbergian boudoir. Pao Fu has managed to shear off one of Chun-i’s arms, yet she remains redoubtable. Ai Nu unleashes her ultimate weapon. “Love”? She scornfully assures the besotted Chun-i that her love was an imposture from beginning to end. She felt absolutely nothing, never. The fatal wound is delivered. The imposture is over.
Dying, Chun-i begs for a final kiss. Murmurs in Vancouver’s packed Shaw Theatre (showcase for Shaw Bros. product); nervous laughter; cries of warning. Somehow, this audience expects a final twist. Ai Nu, also dubious, but touched, gives the kiss. Unspeakable irony! “Thank you,” says Chun-i—dragon lady, dupe, walking malignancy, green-poison-capsule-biter, winner—“Thank you for following me into death.”
INTIMATE CONFESSIONS OF A CHINESE COURTESAN
Direction: Chu Yuan. Screenplay: Chiu Kang-chien. Cinematography: Wu Cho-hua. Editing: Chiang Hsing-lung. Art Direction: Chen Ching-shen. Martial Arts lnstruction: Hsu Erh-niu. Production: Runme Shaw.
Copyright © 1974 Ken Eisler