Gifted female scholar Yu Yuan-Gi (Pat Ha) becomes a Taoist priestess to retain her independence at a time when few women could do so in Tang Dynasty China. Yearning to experience aspects of life beyond the limits of her station, Yuan-Gi ingratiates herself among the upper echelons of society by holding extravagant orgies at her house and taking many lovers. Among these, roving swordsman Tsui Pak-Hau (Alex Man) becomes the love of her life. Like Yuan-Gi, Pak-Hau has chosen the life of a vagabond warrior for the sake of freedom. Eventually he abandons Yuan-Gi for the road after which she consoles with a string of affairs, even seducing her faithful handmaiden Lu Chiao (Lam Hoi-Ling) to the disgust of self-righteous scholar Taoist Yung (Poon Jan-Wai). Later on Lu Chiao falls pregnant yet refuses to reveal the father, much to Yuan-Gi's displeasure. When her companion threatens to leave, Yuan-Gi finally goes too far bringing her life as a feminist iconoclast to a tragic end.
By the mid-Eighties Hong Kong's once-mighty Shaw Brothers was in terminal decline yet even in its dying days coughed up a handful of masterpieces. Among these was An Amorous Woman of Tang Dynasty, ostensibly a historical soft-core porn epic prefiguring such ribald Category III romps as Sex and the Emperor (1994) or Lover of the Last Empress (1995). However, in his directorial debut, HK New Wave auteur Eddie Fong crafts a film far more elegant, literate and subversive than your average period sexploitation effort. It is further distinguished by a potent feminist agenda, critiquing a culture that both limits the options for women and savages them for the choices they do make while painting the flawed yet sympathetic Yu Yuan-Gi as a pioneering philosopher and poet. The film links sexual liberation with spiritual and intellectual growth yet acknowledges that human beings can never really transcend the more simple earthly desire for love. Yuan-Gi longs for the kind of freedom men like Pak-Hau take as their birthright. While her story comes to bleak end the powerfully poetic finale also proves somewhat triumphant in that she finally gets to make a choice.
In scenes as when bandits force Yuan-Gi and Lu Chiao to perform a live girl-on-girl show, Fong cannily delivers the sexploitation goods in a humanistic fashion that does not compromise the film's artistic integrity as a thought-provoking, eloquent historical drama. He also stages some lively swordplay action with plenty of slow-motion violence and flying severed heads. For all its unabashed sensuality the film also spotlights the dark flip-side of libertarianism where refugees are sold into sex slavery or horribly abused. The film contrasts Yuan-Gi's initially empathetic heroine with the stolid Taoist Yung who admires her intellect yet is repulsed by her decadence. Yung believes abstinence is the pathway to enlightenment yet hypocritically vents his sexual frustration through rape.
As sordid as all this might sound the film is never less than beautiful to behold (e.g. the sequence with Yuan-Gi swimming underwater when she bumps into a bloody sword that provides our first glimpse of Pak-Hau). Raymond Lee King-Man won the prestigious Golden Horse award for his striking art direction. Fong's elegant direction is closer to the formalism of Sixties Japanese cinema than Eighties sexploitation fare. Breaking with Shaw Brothers' tradition he abandons the studio for real exterior locations that inject a powerful realism while the outstanding soundtrack mixing choral chants and traditional instruments adds to the film's uniquely authentic ambiance. Sadly, Fong's original cut of the film which ran an hour longer no longer exists. More prolific as a screenwriter than a director, Fong only made four movies but has an enduring partnership with his filmmaker wife Clara Law, having written and produced all her movies. Since the late Nineties the pair have been based in Australia where they have made several acclaimed works, most notably Floating Life (1996) which swept the board at the Golden Horse Awards and was Australia's submission for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Film. Eddie Fong's first cinematic success was the screenplay he penned for Patrick Tam's groundbreaking youth drama Nomad (1982) which also marked the acting debut of Pat Ha. While not conventionally beautiful, Ha exudes an undeniable sensuality which, combined with a restless intellect and soulful intensity, make Yuan-Gi a most compelling, multifaceted anti-heroine. Ha quickly developed a reputation as one of the most adventurous Hong Kong actresses, notably in the Shaw Brothers' drama My Name Ain't Suzie (1985), a riposte to the Hollywood classic The World of Suzie Wong (1960). She also dabbled in lighter fare for the studio including Chu Yuan's contemporary comedy Let's Have a Baby (1985). After a brief retirement in 1989 she resumed acting in the late Nineties and remains active to this day in films like Let's Go! (2011) and The Woman Knight of Mirror Lake (2011).