A landmark in Hong Kong cinema, Chu Yuan’s Intimate Confessions of a Chinese Courtesan sounds like an oriental sex romp, but while certainly erotic, is also a poetic, multilayered affair capable of enticing both grindhouse and art-house crowds. The film marks a highpoint in Yuan’s ongoing efforts to interweave kung fu with elements of mystery, softcore sensuality, grotesque horror, and romantic melodrama in a manner that evokes both classical Chinese literature and such maestros of excess as Josef Von Sternberg.
In the green-tinted prologue, police inspector Ji De (Yueh Hua) investigates a murder he believes to have been committed by Ai Nu (Lily Ho Li). A near-legendary courtesan whose carnal skills are so renowned wealthy lovers beat a path to her door. Flashbacks reveal Ai Nu was among a group of peasant girls kidnapped by bandits and sold to the Four Seasons brothel, run by lesbian kung fu goddess Madam Chun (Betty Pei Ti ). Ai Nu becomes the sexual slave of several rich perverts, but Chun is beguiled by her beauty and feistiness. They become lovers. Deeply smitten, Chun imparts all of her invincible martial arts skills, as Ai Nu ascends to the upper echelons of society as China’s number one concubine. Following a second murder, Ji realises Ai Nu is killing off the men who raped her years ago, but with no clear evidence and with the suspect protected by the imperial court, his hands are tied. Soon Ji is drawn under her spell, as Ai Nu’s one-woman vengeance trail climaxes in treachery, tragedy and pioneering use of poisoned lipstick.
Intimate Confessions… was cited by director Clarence Fok as a major influence upon his cult classic Naked Killer (1992) and hailed by critics as the first Chinese movie to depict lesbian characters sympathetically. In truth, the film is less interested in pursuing a specifically gay agenda than in evoking a wholly aestheticized world, a realm of the senses where sexuality is mutable. For Chu Yuan, sensuality, martial arts, poetry and art are intertwined, vital elements of Chinese culture. They are extensions of his characters and the means by which they express themselves. Chun is a monstrous, but sensual creature, a woman happy to whip the rebellious Ai Nu until she bleeds, then lick the wounds on her back, while the killer concubine’s victims are similarly ruled by their pleasures. In order to survive amidst this recklessly hedonistic world, Ai Nu transforms herself into the most wantonly sensual being of all, a concept that evokes the Marquis de Sade. Far from amoral, Intimate Confessions…utilizes the besotted Ji De as a window into Ai Nu’s tortured soul, while even Chun is shown to have feelings and becomes a pitiable figure.
Yuan can take a simple moment like Ai Nu being clad in silks and transform it into a set-piece that weaves a dreamy, seductive spell. Make no mistake, this is one seriously sexy movie, but in an intelligent, elegant manner that won’t leave you reaching for a dirty raincoat. Sumptuous costumes, baroque sets and surreal colours (like Mario Bava, Yuan is fond of candy-coloured gels and fog) combine to create a world of magic and mystery. At the centre of it all stands the award-winning Lily Ho Li. An actress who enjoyed a racier image than most at Shaw Brothers Studios (she was the first to go nude, in the period martial arts epic, Knight of Knights (1966)), Lily Ho Li gave an array of credible performances, whether in musical comedy (We Love Millionaires (1971)) or spy thriller (Angel with Iron Fists (1966)). Intimate Confessions… was probably her finest hour, although she won a second best actress award playing a man (!) in The 14 Amazons (1972).
For many, the film’s most memorable character is the deliciously twisted Chun. Kung fu and horror fans delight in her lethal “Ghost Hand” technique, wherein she punches opponents in the chest, rips out their innards, then sucks the blood off her hands (Mmm, finger-lickin’ good), one of many sick touches that made this a firm favourite on the grindhouse circuit. Actress Betty Pei Ti is sensational, although many a HK film fan has got her easily confused with Betty Ting Pei, another softcore starlet who was Bruce Lee’s mistress and in whose apartment he was found dead. Ting Pei’s life took a turn for the surreal when she played herself in another infamous Shaw Brothers' softcore sex romp Bruce Lee & I (1975).