Arguably the sleaziest of all exploitation genres is the Women in Prison movie. Producer Roger Corman and director Jack Hill honed tawdry thrills down to a fine art in films like The Big Doll House (1971) and The Big Bird Cage (1972), but the genre reached its apogee when it went East. Hong Kong’s legendary Shaw Brothers jumped onto babes-behind-bars bandwagon with Bamboo House of Dolls, adding extra ingredients in the form of international martial arts sensation, Lo Lieh and Asia’s most popular Scandinavian sex kitten, Birte Tove.
We dive headfirst into grindhouse action. It is the 1940s - our heroines’ very Seventies makeup and outfits notwithstanding. Japanese troops blast Chinese resistance fighters to gory bits, including the husband of brave Hong Yulan (Li Hai-shu). With his dying breath he passes her a secret message. The soldiers bayonet the wounded and elderly, then carry off Chinese girls and a handful of voluptuous, Caucasian nurses to prison camp. Sitar-driven, psychedelic rock plays while the credits freeze-frame on bare breasts and panty shots. Words like ‘classy’ and ‘restraint’ don’t figure too highly in grindhouse movie vocabulary.
It’s sexploitation hell at the women’s prison, where Yulan befriends feisty, blonde Jennifer (Birte Tove), much-abused blind girl Lizhu, and nymphets Elizabeth (Niki Wayne) and Mary (Roska Rozen), amidst catfights, electric torture and gratuitous shower scenes. The inmates are bound and whipped, used as slave workers and forced to have sex with randy, Japanese soldiers, including camp commander Inoue (Wang Hsia). Mako (Terry Liu), the token lesbian warden, takes a shine to Mary. She copulates with her artfully in silhouette until Mary responds passionately. After an escape attempt ends in tragedy, the women realise they have a traitor in their midst, while Jennifer discovers the camp’s second-in-command, Cui Guodong (Lo Lieh - supercool in shades) is really a Chinese spy. Jen and Guodong are soon getting it on in soft-core, candlelit love scenes. Eventually, Guodong and the girls bust out of prison, in search of a secret cache of stolen gold. But the Japanese are in hot pursuit, and the mysterious traitor begins bumping the women off, one by one.
Cruel? Demeaning? Maybe, but only if you choose to take the film seriously. Bamboo House of Dolls is too camp to be genuinely offensive. At heart, it’s a good, trashy, sexploitation-horror movie, with the comely cast sporting ridiculously short and flimsy, negligee-type, prison outfits. Typically for Kuei Chi-hung (Killer Snakes (1974), The Boxer’s Omen (1983)), the story is overly harsh and fatalistic. Almost everyone dies. Yet much of the sex is played for broad comedy. Nymphomaniac Elizabeth wears out several soldiers in one night. She and Mary later striptease to lure a prison guard into their trap. Mako ambushes Mary in the shower and Burt Bacharach-style lounge music plays while she soaps her up and they make out. The film certainly delivers to its target audience.
Sexy Euro-starlets provide most of the nudity, with Birte Tove a surprisingly strong lead heroine. Like Evelyn Kraft, Tove had a brief but successful career in Hong Kong cinema, headlining Shaw Brothers’ films like Sexy Girls of Denmark (1973) and The Mini Skirt Gang (1974). She later appeared in Lars Von Trier’s The Kingdom (1995) and Kingdom II (1997). Meanwhile, the multitalented Lo Lieh seems to be having a great time, cast as a suave, super-stud.
Unlike many of its ilk, Bamboo House of Dolls is quite action packed with shootouts, car chases, half-naked kung fu girls fighting Japanese soldiers, slow-motion stunts (a car leaping over the prison walls is a real showstopper), heroic self-sacrifices, and a treasure hunt through a spooky cave full of cobwebs and poisonous spiders. It wraps up with a gory, martial arts battle between Wang Hsia and Lo Lieh while Birte cuts loose with her magnificent machinegun.