Friday, January 9, 2015

Wuxia Inspiration: Intimate Confessions of a Chinese Courtesan

Wandering Heroes of Ogre Gate draws on a number of sources for inspiration. I watch a lot of wuxia movies and TV shows, and these have had a big influence not only on Ogre Gate, but on Sertorius and many of my d20 campaigns. I am hoping to share some of my favorite movies and shows in the genre here as we work on WHOG.

Note: I am writing these as a fan of the genre. I am not a movie expert or an expert in asian cinema. These are my own observations based on what I have learned by watching wuxia and kung fu movies, and by reading about them through interviews and books. But my knowledge is quite limited and I am an English speaker. So understand that my commentary comes from this perspective. 

Note: This review contains many spoilers. It also discusses a movie that addresses adult themes and violent content like rape. 

Intimate Confessions of a Chinese Courtesan (called simply 愛奴 Ai Nu in the original Mandarin, which apparently means "love slave") is a 1972 Shaw Brothers film directed by Yuen Chor* (Killer Clans, Clans of Intrigue, and Cold Blade). It stars Betty Pei Ti (as Lady Chun) and Lily Ho (as Ai Nu). Yueh Hua also has an important role as Chief Ji**, who is a kind of detective investigating a series of murders. 

This film occupies a moral world similar to that in Yuen Chor's other film Killer Clans (which I talked about HERE). It is a setting of violence, exploitation and revenge. 

This is an important movie for a number of reasons. It is considered groundbreaking in its depicting of homosexuality and its fusion of wuxia with eroticism. It is also seen as an early feminist Hong Kong film and traces of it are detectible in later movies like Kill Bill. 

Intimate Confessions of a Chinese Courtesan is the kind of film that benefits a thoughtful viewing. There is definitely more going on in the movie than one might think, and it is quite deliberate. From the initial scene to the first time we meet Lady Chun and her gaze lingers in the mirror, it is obvious the director is drawing our attention to things that become significant later. It is subject matter that could easily become campy but Yuen Chor handles it well. 


The movie opens with a flash forward in green tint. We see Chief Ji (Yueh Hua) leading an investigation into the death of Master Liao, whose body is on the floor in a courtyard accumulating snow. Chief Ji asks if anyone was with the master, and someone reveals a woman named Ai Nu was seen leaving before they found his body. 

The film resumes in color at Lady Chun's brothel and it becomes clear after a while that the green tinted sequence was set later in the film, a preview of something to come. We meet Ai Nu for the first time, brought to the brothel in chains. Ai Nu, along with several other women, has been kidnapped by a group of thugs who have an arrangement with the madame, Lady Chun. 

Lady Chun holds a personal audience with the group's leader, Huatian, and pays him gold. She warns him not to let his men touch any of the girls, and he assures her they are under his control. During the conversation it is revealed that Lady Chun has no interest in men. 

Later the women are all inspected by brothel staff and Lady Chun learns that one of them has been violated. In a graphic moment, she tortures the woman into naming her assailant: Zhu Hai (one of Huatian's men). Lady Chun immediately confronts Zhu Hai and kills him, revealing herself to be a formidable martial expert. 
Lady Chun kills Zhu Hai

In the meantime, Ai Nu refuses to eat and behaves violently toward the brothel staff. It is clear Lady Chun has developed a personal interest in her, offering her nice rooms and maids if she does as the madame asks. Her initial treatment of Ai Nu is a combination of softness and cruelty as she tries to break her will. When Ai Nu continues to resist, Lady Chun has her caned. 

After the caning, Lady Chun reveals her interest in Ai Nu, trying to seduce her, and ultimately having her way with her against her will. Later one of the men who works at the brothel, the mute Shuzi, brings her medicine and food. 

Lady Chun initiates Ai Nu into the brothel by selling her to four prominent men, each bidding to have her first. She is raped by each of the men and tries to hang herself afterwards. 

Shuzi finds her and calls for help. As the staff cut her from cross beams and she awakens, Lady Chun coldly informs her that death is not easy to attain inside the brothel. 

While helping her recover, Shuzi reveals that he can talk, and says that he simply chooses not to reveal this to the others because he despises them. He also says he sympathizes with her situation. That he once loved a rich girl who was raped by her father and committed suicide, and that Ai Nu bears some resemblance to her. He tells her not to worry, that he isn't in love with her, but that he wants to help her escape and advises her "We do not kill ourselves, we retaliate."

Shuzi and Ai Nu sneak into the courtyard and as they open the front gate, Lady Chun towers before them, her men circling around the escapees. Zhuzi tries to create space for Ai Nu to escape, using his sword against the henchmen, but is eventually overpowered and stabbed. As he dies, Shuzi asks Ai Nu to avenge his death. He makes one last attack at Lady Chun, but she kills him with a touch. 

Lady Chun offers to kill Ai Nu if that is what she desires, but asks one more time if she will follow her. Ai Nu agrees and over the a long period of time becomes the madame's lover. She is trained to be a skilled courtesan, catering to select clientele and also instructed by Lady Chun in swordplay and martial arts. 
Lady Chun after the kill

The movie returns to the first scene, at the residence of Master Liao, who we now see is one of the men who raped Ai Nu. Chief Ji goes to the brothel and speaks with Ai Nu, and she lightly denies killing Master Liao but says he was a terrible person. 

In the wake of the killing, Lady Chun's right hand man, Bao, expresses concerns that Ai Nu intends to destroy the brothel and kill them. By this time, Ai Nu has proven her love to the madame, and Lady Chun dismisses Bao's concern. Bao reveals his love for her, but Lady Chun reminds him she has no interest in men. 

Perhaps shaken by Bao's advice, Lady Chun attacks Ai Nu in her sleep to test her skills. The two duel for some time and after, she asks Ai Nu if she intends to kill her. Ai Nu says this is impossible, and explains the killings by saying "I am becoming like you in my hatred of men" which seems to satisfy her. 

Chief Ji talks with his men. He has learned that Master Liao was a regular client of Ai Nu, so decides to investigate and warn her other customers, starting with Master Wei. However when he arrives at Master Wei's villa, he learns that Ai Nu is already there. In the bedroom, she ties Master Wei to the bed, reminds him of his first night with her (he had tied her to a bed) and pours lamp oil on his body. She then creates a trail with the oil and ignites it as she leaves. On her way out she speaks briefly with Chief Ji and the house burst into flames after she departs. 

Ai Nu and Zhuo Wenjian
Chief Ji tries to arrest Ai Nu, but is thwarted by Lady Chun who says the brothel has powerful allies in the government. Later, while alone at his home, Ai Nu comes to warn Chief Ji not to investigate her. They battle lightly with swords. Chief Ji asks why she is trying to stop his investigation and she says it is to protect him. At the end of the conversation she tells him her next victim will be Zhuo Wenjian (an elderly official who was the first man to rape her). 

Chief Ji goes to Zhou Wenjian, but he dismisses his concerns and says that the deaths of Master Liao and Wei were unfortunate coincidences. Ai Nu arrives and Zhou Wenjian asks the detective to leave. Ji departs but waits outside. 

Ai Nu in Master Li's chamber
In a somewhat brilliant move, Ai Nu kills Zhuo Wenjian by bringing the four winds, four courtesans that he must please before he can have her for the night. She knows he is old and relies on aphrodisiacs. The process exhausts him and he dies of aphrodisiac overdose. Chief Ji tries to arrest Ai Nu, but Zhuo Wenjian's son lets her go and asks Ji to keep the cause of death private. 

Knowing that her next victim will be the remaining client, Master Li, Chief Ji goes to warn him. Master Li seems to understand the threat but says the others were not Kung Fu masters like him, and that he can handle her himself. He then tells his men to send for Ai Nu that night and awaits her in his special chamber (which Ai Nu later reveals he uses to torment his women).

When Ai Nu arrives, a kind of strip tease duel unfolds. Ai Nu convinces him she is unarmed, allowing Li to search her, but she stabs him with a hair pin, and laughs that his lust clouded his judgment when he knew she was coming to kill him. 

Ai Nu (Left) and Lady Chun (Right)
Eventually Ji and his men break into the chamber, and a battle ensues. Ai Nu escapes into the wilderness, finding another train of wagons filled with kidnapped victims destined for Lady Chun's brothel. Ai Nu attacks the caravan and tells Ji if he wants justice he should arrest them rather than her. Ji takes her side and attacks Lady Chun's men. 

Returning to the brothel, Ai Nu attacks Bao and his henchmen. Lady Chun joins her, saying that she and Ai Nu are like one person, that she cannot live without her. Together, Lady Chun and Ai Nu scour the brothel, killing the men and releasing the women. This is a massive battle, tremendously well done and bloody. 

Lady Chun (who attacks with her nails in a "ghost hand" technique) impales Bao with her hand, but he cuts off her arm as he dies. Turning to Ai Nu she asks if she can still love her if she is disabled. Ai Nu replies that it makes no difference because she never loved her. 
Lady Chun impales Bao as he cuts off
her arm

Ai Nu circles the now helpless Lady Chun and explains that she decided to use love as a weapon for her revenge because hatred had failed. She then cuts off the madame's other arm and watches as she lay dying. Lady Chun says it is karma, that she doesn't hate Ai Nu and wants just one last kiss. Ai Nu agrees but Lady Chun reveals she had been chewing on a poisoned pill. Her mouth flows with green liquid and she dies, telling Ai Nu that they are not one in the same because Ai Nu still has a conscience. Ai Nu dies from the poison and Chief Ji arrives too late to save her. 

While there is less fighting throughout Intimate Confessions than in movies like Killer Clans, this is still wuxia with a some impressive swordplay scenes. Ultimately the story is more important than the action, and the action compliments the story. This is not the greatest fight choreography in the world, but it does work well with the overall feel of the movie and there are moments that do impress. Even if it lacks some of the athletics of a Chen Pei-pei film, the battles are worthy viewing because they are rich in symbolism and mirror the story.  So there is still a lot to appreciate in its use of violence. 

That said there are some truly impressive points in the action. There is one moment in the climax of the film that seemed to be a call back to the temple scene in Come Drink With Me. The way that the spray of blood is used like paint on a canvass in the final scene is also quite impressive. 

The use of the green tint at the start of the film reminded me of Hero's use of colors to establish different points of view of the same event. Shortly after we also see Lady Chun reflecting in a mirror, and this seems to tie in with her later statements that her and Ai Nu are "one and the same". 
 Master Li, Master Liao, Master Wie, and Zhuo Wenjian

This is ultimately a revenge fantasy and well done in that respect. I mentioned there was not much in the way of action, but that is because they are building interest in the main character Ai Nu and investing the viewer in her plight. So by the time she starts killing for revenge, it means something. Watching Intimate Confessions of a Chinese Courtesan, you will also see familiar moments echoed in later films, particularly around some of the feminist themes. 

The character Ai Nu is somewhat unique and interesting. She is a female martial hero in the wuxia tradition but by necessity a much darker character than Golden Swallow (Come Drink With Me) or Yang Huizhen (A Touch of Zen). Stephen Tao has drawn several parallels between her in Intimate Confessions of a Chinese Courtesan and the heroine in the King Hu classic A Touch of Zen. He says if Touch of Zen is about the "transformation of a martial arts heroine seeking revenge to a chaste woman seeking redemption" then Confessions is "sensualistic reverse of that transformation". The movies are starkly different in many respects but I think that is an interesting observation. I wouldn't characterize A Touch of Zen exactly that way (partly because part of the heroine's redemption in that film is to have a child with the male character out of a sense of duty and not love), but I do think there is a comparison to be made. 

For gaming this is a tough one because the brothel is a venue that can be difficult to do in an RPG depending on the tastes and ages of your players. Brothels are a staple in the wuxia genre, and in a wuxia campaign, this could certainly serve as the basis for a villainous gang or organization, but it raises a lot of sensitive issues so I think it would need to be approached with care. 

Still, this is also in part a detective movie, with Chief Ji trying to get to the body of a murder mystery. Much of that could be pulled into a campaign and the content altered enough that it wouldn't present any issues. 

This is a good film, and though it is often spoken of as an erotic piece (and to a degree it is), by today's standards it remains quite tame and these aspects do not overwhelm the story. It isn't sex for its own sake, there are more important themes at work. Some of the scenes are uncomfortable and can be difficult to watch.

*This is usually rendered as Chu Yuan. 
**This is how the name appeared on my version, but it seems it is Chi Te in other translations. 

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