Review: Exploitations from the Far East (DVD box set) (1975)

As they did with their Wuxia box set, Siren Visual have put together a set of five films from the Shaw Brothers with similar themes, packaging them up in rather a nice-looking box set with new artwork and menus on all the discs. This one’s rather less high-minded than the tales of chivalry and heroism in the last one, though — it’s a box of Shaws’ less salubrious fare from the late 70s and early 80s, when they moved more seriously into doing erotica and horror cinema.

They’re all films that we’ve already seen here at Heroic Cinema, so I’ll cover them briefly — we’ve got more in-depth reviews of each of the titles for those who’re after more detail. They range from Mighty Peking Man, which is a rather fun (if uneven and cheesy) riff on King Kong, through erotica adapted from the 17th century Chinese novel The Golden Lotus, to horror in Human Lanterns starring consummate Shaws bad guy Lo Lieh.

We begin with An Amorous Woman of Tang Dynasty, quite the weirdest film on our list. Departing from the Shaws house style a little in its art direction and staging, it follows the story of a lady scholar who becomes a Taoist priestess in order to avoid becoming just another wife or mistress to an official. The film’s filled with nudity and has all the typical hallmarks of exploitation cinema, but there’s also a very strong lead performance and what could be an interesting story if it were a little more coherently put together.

Master of the costumed period drama, Li Han-hsiang gives us Golden Lotus, an adaptation of part of the 17th century Chinese novel of the same name. It follows the exploits of Ximen Qing (Yueng Kwan), a wealthy young man who will stop at nothing to acquire beautiful new wives and mistresses for himself. It stars a bevy of Shaws’ top starlets at the time, led by Hu Chin and Tanny Tien Ni, and also has a small role for a very young Jackie Chan. It’s not a bad film, naughtiness aside, and is probably the most direct adaptation of this story that the Shaws studios produced; Li Han-hsiang alone made at least three!

The Mighty Peking Man is Shaws’ foray into the giant monster genre, their answer to King Kong with occasional nods to Godzilla and Japan’s rich tradition of kaiju cinema. Easily the cheesiest of these five films, it’s nevertheless quite a lot of fun, pitting Swisss blond actress Evelyn Kraft and her enormous ape-like friend against Ku Feng, playing a thoroughly unwholesome villain. Danny Lee (who might be more familiar as the detective from John Woo’s The Killer) takes on the lead role of the adventurer contracted to find the beast, only to discover that things aren’t so easy later on.

Human Lanterns was the only film in this set I hadn’t seen before I picked it up for review, and it’s got a fearsome reputation: it’s a cult favourite, mixing the swordplay film with more than a bit of horror and nudity. It’s also been difficult to find until Celestial started remastering the Shaws films, paving the way for the DVD releases we’re seeing now. Human Lanterns stars Chen Kuan-tai and Liu Yung as rival martial arts masters who’ve been rivals for many years, now warring over a courtesan and the upcoming lantern festival. Determined to win, Liu Yung’s character goes to a lantern maker (the scarred and growling Lo Lieh) and orders the construction of a beautiful set of lanterns — unaware of what the lantern-maker intends to use for his basic materials.

It’s a pretty gratuitous film, well-placed in an exploitation collection, but it’s also quite well-made: it’s well-directed, with Shaws’ usual elaborate sets and lighting, and Lo Lieh delivers a gleefully maniacal performance. Nevertheless, it is pretty dated nowadays, and the horror isn’t delivered in a series of abrupt plot-twists — the unmasking of the villain half-way through isn’t exactly a surprise, and it’s his dedication to his task that provides a lot of the film’s mounting sense of doom.

Finally, we come to Intimate Confessions of a Chinese Courtesan, probably the best-known of the exploitation films to emerge from Shaws’ over the years. It’s directed by Chor Yuen, who produced a great many swordplay films for Shaws during the genre’s heyday, usually chronicling the adventures of heroes with unique armouries, or the complex maneuverings of rival clans. In Intimate Confessions, though, he swaps a few of the genre’s conventions: here, the lead characters are female, and the plot’s not centred around chivalry or the recovery of an unbeatable superweapon. Instead, we watch lead character Ai Nu (Lily Ho) take revenge on all those who mistreat her after she’s kidnapped and sold into a brothel at the start of the film. It’s an exploitation film, no doubt about it, but it’s got quite a lot of depth and is very well-made: it’s certainly the best of this collection, and shouldn’t be discounted for its racy title!

Exploitation film isn’t one of my favourite genres, and not one I’m an expert on, but Siren have given us a reasonable cross-section of films form the Shaws stable that can be broadly labeled as such. With the exception of Intimate Confessions, none of them really stood out to me as great movies, but they’re all different and show a different side of the studio that produced so many more straight-laced films in earlier years.

6.5 gratuitous slow pans out of 10.
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