by Tony Dayoub
Intimate Confessions of a Chinese Courtesan (1972) is the unwieldy title of this Shaw Brothers film. Its unusually frank depiction of lesbianism in a martial arts film is what elevates this into a minor cult classic.
I've been sitting on this one for a while, not because I didn't like it. In fact, I loved this movie. My reluctance is due to the fact that I'm not well-versed in the martial arts genre outside of some Bruce Lee films. However, I just had to recommend this one because of the pure enjoyment I experienced when watching it.
It takes its time getting started, setting a somber mood with its snowy first scene where a constable investigates a murder of a prominent man in the community. The last person seen with him was the beautiful courtesan, Ainu (Lily Ho). In the subsequent flashback, a much younger Ainu is kidnapped and delivered to a brothel run by Lady Chun (Betty Pei Ti). Determined to break her into submission, Lady Chun allows Ainu to be raped by some important customers, a group of men that hold significant positions of power in the local establishment. The madam's strong attraction to Ainu's rebellious spirit soon becomes a physical one. Chun mentors Ainu in martial arts. Ainu secretly promises to avenge herself, starting with the murder from the beginning of the film. As she hunts each man down, Ainu finds her feelings for Chun becoming complicated, as she nurtures an apparent erotic interest for Chun as well.
Director Chu Yuan executes the fight scenes with a deft sense of mise-en-scène that is sorely lacking in today's badly edited action sequences. The placement of each participant in every action scene is clear. Design elements important in establishing a sense of time and place are always paid the attention due to them. Pay attention to these, in this clip of the film's opening, where they stand apart from the more frequent action in the latter half of the film.
Another surprising aspect to look for is the complexity in the female relationship. I was expecting that, in this traditionally exploitative genre, the affair between the Ainu and the Lady Chun would be depicted lustily. In fact, probably due in no small part to the taboos of the times (and specifically Hong Kong society), the homosexuality is treated sensitively. Though the scenes of intimacy between them are shot in good taste, they still manage to hold erotic power, even today.
It is also interesting to note that as the movie heads towards its conclusion, it becomes more and more difficult to tell Chun and Ainu apart. As Ainu's thirst for vengeance starts asserting its hold over her, the similarities to the equally corrupt Chun become more evident.
Intimate Confessions of a Chinese Courtesan is a fascinating and sensitive look at female-to-female relationships in an otherwise traditionally male-oriented action genre. The movie is also - at just 87 minutes - a lean, mean, revenge thriller. It is worth your time seeking this film out.