Intimate Confessions of a Chinese Courtesan is one of Shaw Brothers’ more infamous and influential films, one that shocked audiences when it was released in 1972. It’s since been remade by the same director (as 1984’s Lust for Love of a Chinese Courtesan) and was apparently the inspiration for Clarence Fok’s Naked Killer. It’s garnered its reputation for its marriage of the kung-fu genre with eroticism, usually a recipe for thoroughly B-grade cinema. Intimate Confessions’ acting, production values and slightly loopy plot manage to elevate it above such description, however.
The story concerns Ai Nu, a young girl kidnapped from her family and sold into service at a bustling brothel run by luminous madam Chun-i (Betty Pei Ti). Chun-i herself isn’t the slightest bit interested in men, preferring the company of women — and she’s captivated immediately by Ai Nu’s rebellious spirit and potential as a high-class courtesan.
In a typical Shaw Brothers twist, though, Chun-i is also an expert fighter and perfectly willing to hurt or kill those who betray her. This point is very quickly made to Ai Nu, along with the easy life she could have if she follows orders and submits to the madam’s advances.
Ai Nu quickly becomes the most desirable and exclusive courtesan in the brothel and is violated in a serious of quick, ugly scenes (complete with slow motion footage of gleefully laughing older men), culminating in a botched attempt to take her own life. These scenes are deliberately (I suspect) made thoroughly distasteful, and each ends in a freeze-frame: the director wants us to remember these men and what they’ve done to the unwilling young girl. A desire for vengeance is quickly kindled in Ai Nu as she becomes all that Chun-i wishes her to be, all the while plotting her revenge.
As she sets her sights on those who have wronged her, Ai Nu encounters Chief Ji (Yueh Hua), a young officer tasked with bringing the murderer who’s knocking off all these local officials to justice. There are some great scenes between him and Ai Nu: both of them know what’s going on, but he can’t prove a thing and is loath to accuse so powerful a consort of local government officials.
Intimate Confessions really stands out in the Shaws stable: it’s an intense melodrama, a kung fu film, a brightly coloured wuxia fantasy and a cat-and-mouse film, all rolled into one. In some ways, it’s a diversion for director Chu Yuan, moving from his ‘martial arts world’ (the focus of most of his films for Shaw Brothers) into the floating world of brothels and courtesans that sits alongside it. No expense has been spared: Lily Ho and Betty Pei Ti are two of Shaws’ most prominent lead actresses, Yueh Hua is one of their leading men of the day, and the costumes and sets are lavish. The camera work is excellent, too, handled with similar elan to Chu Yuen’s work in the wuxia genre. The music is very 70’s, with guitar-driven funk tunes appearing out of nowhere to presage the arrival of nubile beauties or, occasionally, wanton older men. Occasionally it’s unnerving, but I suspect that overall it adds to the film’s cult appeal.
All in all, it’s a great film: difficult to pigeonhole, colourful and thoroughly entertaining. I recommend it to anyone who’s a fan of the Shaw Brothers films and wants to see a skewed take on the wuxia genre.