Illicit Desire is another erotic costume drama from Li Han Hsiang, and the third from him that I’ve seen so far that is (at least partly) an adaptation from the same source — The Golden Lotus, as seen also in (unsurprisingly) The Golden Lotus and The Tiger Killer. He even uses some of the same actors, with Tanny Tien Ni, Hu Chin and Chen Ping also in this one.
This film’s a little different, though. It’s essentially three separate stories, with a common theme of covetousness and a period drama setting being all that links them together. The first tells of a government official (Hsiao I, played by Yueh Hua) trying to obtain the famous “Orchid Pavilion Preface”, a piece of particularly fine calligraphy by Wang Hsi-chih. He’s authorised by the emperor (who collects Wang’s works) to obtain it by any means necessary, including trickery and theft, from its current owner — a monk named Pien Tsai, who denies having it to the emperor himself.
Our second story is taken from The Golden Lotus, and deals with a a small segment of the life of noted wealthy playboy Ximen Qing and his bevy of wives. Inside his domain, adultery, trickery and corruption are rife. When Ximen sets his roving eyes on one of his vassals’ wives, nothing seems to be able to stop him, no matter how brazenly he organises her husband’s downfall. Unlike The Golden Lotus, this is quite a short segment of the story, almost a vignette.
Finally we have a short, simple tale that deals with the stealing of one’s neighbours’ cows and the duplicity of fortune tellers — this piece stars Shaws stalwart Ku Feng, who seems to have a lot of fun (despite, or perhaps because of, a long-running laxative joke worthy of an 80s comedy!) Also visiting the fortune teller is a man who thinks his wife is having an affair, but despairs of ever catching the adulterer. What follows is a closed-room comedy, with much bathing and hiding in cupboards and so forth.
It’s an interesting series of stories, and doubtless was popular at the time not least for rather a lot of partial nudity from Chen Ping and Marisa in the final two-thirds. The stories are all quite short, so there’s not a lot of room for complicated character development, though — this may be mitigated if you know the original texts that are being adapted. I thought the first third was the strongest, though its ‘illicit desire’ quotient is far less steamy than the other two. Yueh Hua’s character of the duplicitous government official is well played, as he poses as a simple scholar and befriends the old monk, all the time plotting to steal the monk’s prized possession. Ku Feng’s great fun in his segment too, arguing with his wife about his cows and their marriage.