In Sung Dynasty China, lusty nobleman Ximen Qing (Peter Yang Kwan) can’t keep his hands off the ladies, even though he has a wife and several concubines. He has his eye on comely Jin Lian (Hu Chin), who is unhappily married to Wu Da Long (Chiang Nan), an ugly but kindly old dwarf who good-naturedly endures taunts from the neighbourhood kids. Qing strikes a deal with amoral old Mrs. Wang (Wang Lai) to lure Jin Lian to his love nest downtown where she soon succumbs to his advances. Their frenzied passion is spied by a friend of Wu Da Long’s, a disapproving young street vendor played by an actor many of you may recognise. Yes, that’s right, it’s Jackie Chan! In a soft-core porn flick!
Many struggling young stars-in-the-making began their careers in soft-core porn. To that list we can add the clown prince of kung fu. Actually, Jackie does not partake in any onscreen hanky-panky here. He left that till the following year’s sex comedy, All in the Family (1975). Jackie exits this film fairly early when gruesomely stabbed in the stomach by Qing’s hired thugs, but everybody has to start somewhere. Still, it’s not like he was appearing in Chinese Nympho Lesbians in Bondage, or anything truly sordid (I made up that title, so don’t go searching for it on the IMDB). The Golden Lotus was a prestigious slice of upmarket erotica made by Shaw Brothers’ most venerated auteur, Li Han-hsiang.
Li Han-hsiang had a string of critically admired social dramas and historical epics behind him, but in the Seventies made the curious decision to focus exclusively on soft-core porn, often based on erotic works of classic literature. With The Golden Lotus, Li was adapting a 14th century novel about the exploits of a real, historical lothario who to all intents and purposes, seems like a real sack of shit. When poor Wu Da Long catches Qing in bed with his wife, the nobleman beats the peasant half to death. He then persuades Jin Lian to poison her husband so they can be married, but on their wedding night Qing finds himself overcome with lust for another woman. His best friend’s wife, Li Ping Erh (Tanny Tien Ni). Qing feels justified in seducing Li Ping Erh since his friend is a drunken gambler, but he also swindles their family out of their property. When the dejected Li Ping Erh attempts suicide, Qing’s solution is to bullwhip the sobbing woman. He also takes his whip to Jin Lian, whom he wrongly suspects of being unfaithful. Her lovely handmaiden Chunmei (Chen Ping) pleads for her mistress’ life, leaving Qing sufficiently turned on enough to shag the servant girl in front of his prostrate wife.
Although Jin Lian calls Qing on his double standards, the rest of his harem including his chief courtesan (Lau Ng-Kei) and spiteful fourth concubine (Teresa Ha Ping) are content to bicker and blame each other. Beneath the lavish sets and soft-core couplings, it’s an ugly tale implying women will willingly tolerate anything so long as a man can keep them sexually satisfied. In fact Li Ping Erh briefly marries a young doctor, but finds him so unsatisfying in bed she goes crawling back to Ximen Qing. Qing promptly frames her new husband for fraud, so he can have her all to himself and she soon bears him a son. Li’s golden rule with The Golden Lotus seems to be it is okay to include acres of undraped flesh provided one has some heavy-handed moralising to go with it. Yet though our narrator implies otherwise, there is no moral to be discerned. Ximen Qing breezes through life being an unrepentant bastard and rises to a prominent position at the imperial court, while his enemies either fall by the wayside or else stand idly by, powerless. He eventually succumbs to an overdose of his favourite aphrodisiac, but that is down to an amorous Jin Lian rather than the result of his own wrongdoing. The implied message being, okay this guy was an amoral jerk but if women in general weren’t so sexually voracious, none of this would have happened.
In real life, the Beijing born, Taiwan educated Peter Yang Kwan was a devout Christian. He made his screen debut in 1954 but it was a decade before he achieved stardom with The Story of Qin Xiang-Lian (1964). Yang Kwan had a close working relationship with Li Han-hsiang and starred in many of the most significant Taiwanese films of the Sixties, winning a Golden Horse Best Actor award for Storm of the Yangtze River (1969). In 1970, Yang and his wife Yu Tung-Chi founded the Fung Ming Film Company. Their first production, You Can’t Tell Him (1970) won best picture as did The Escape (1971), which Yang also directed and starred, adding a second best actor award to his shelf. His last film was the religious drama Life is a Miracle (2001).
Lastly, Chen Ping began her career at sixteen in Taiwanese movies. Her sexy performance in the Shaw thriller Kiss of Death (1973) propelled her to stardom. She was another regular in Li’s erotic films, but also appeared in less highbrow sex fare at Shaw’s including Sexy Playgirls (1973), Crazy Sex (1976) and Love Swindlers (1976). Fans can also see her in two of the studio’s even more disreputable monster movies: Oily Maniac (1976) and The Mighty Peking Man (1977).
With these sultry starlets on board, The Golden Lotus is certainly watchable and it renders Sung Dynasty street life in vivid detail. However, the action is hindered by Li Han-hsiang’s longwinded style and a self-aggrandizing antihero unlikely to inspire anything beyond contempt, unless you subscribe to the film’s theory that deep down every woman loves a bastard. The novel also inspired Clara Law's arty supernatural thriller Reincarnation of the Golden Lotus (1989) wherein perennial babe-from-beyond-the-grave Joey Wong is possessed by the evil spirit of Ximen Qing.