Review: The Golden Lotus (1974)

Well, this is a different kind of film for me to review; The Golden Lotus is a Shaw Brothers film that features no kung fu, no roving swordsmen, no cultists, no priests, and no battling for honour or control of the martial world at all. It does (as the synopsis above says) have murders, corruptions and sexual exploits. Mostly sexual exploits, actually — the corruption and murders are generally side-effects in this story. So, consider yourself warned: most definitely not for those who will happily watch films about people beating the stuffing out of each other, but tremble at the sight of uncovered knees.

The Golden Lotus is an adaptation of the well-known novel (the Chinese title is Jin Ping Mei) written in the late Ming Dynasty, probably some time in the 16th or 17th century. It describes the exploits of Ximen Qing (Yueng Kwan), a young man of means and power whose main interest is acquiring and amusing himself with additional consorts and wives. Our story begins when he meets Pan Jinlian (Hu Chin), the beautiful young wife of Wu Dalang (Chiang Nan), a dwarf of a man who sells pancakes in the street. Wu Dalang is teased by children for his ugliness and short stature, and his wife is embarrassed when he’s mentioned by others. Conspiring with Pan’s meddlesome neighbour, Ximen arranges his seduction of Pan, leading them eventually to secretly murder her husband.

Their activities don’t remain all that secret, though: they’re observed by a smart-mouthed fruit seller, played by a very young Jackie Chan, before his emergence as a film superstar. The whole town knows what Ximen’s up to, and he gets away with it because of his wealth and position, quickly marrying Pan despite the mutterings of the people around them. There’s also the hanging spectre of the imminent return of her dead husband’s brother, the hero Wu Song. Though this never occurs in this film, it’s treated in detail (and with a lot of overlap!) in Tiger Killer, also directed by Li Han-hsiang. The character of Wu Song can also be found in The Water Margin, too.

Pan is thrust into the Ximen household, competing with the other wives for her husband’s attention (and the maids, and his friends’ wives…). Ximen’s roving eye is forever on the move, and he exerts a powerful hold over the women he seduces, driving some of them to the brink of madness. Desire’s the strong emotion here, and it drives all the characters, though Ximen’s gradually revealed as a cruel and vicious man as the story runs its course.

Though it’s a much more lusty, baser story than the measured, more complicated Raise the Red Lantern, there are some commonalities: we see Pan struggle to maintain her existence in a house where she’s completely subservient to her husband and forced to compete with other women for everything. The film’s well-directed, but felt quite roughly acted: Hu Chin is great as Pan Jinlian, transforming from the demure, embarrassed young wife to the pouting, scowling schemer of the last act of the film. Many of the other characters are not as interesting, and Wu Dalang the dwarf is much better played (and given more development) in Tiger Killer.

Worth a watch for fans of other Chinese erotic cinema (Sex and Zen is apparently sometimes compared to this film, though I haven’t seen it), the work of Li Han-hsiang, and Hu Chin. Strong nudity and naughtiness warning on this one, though!

6.5 sidelong glances and knowing winks out of 10.
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