Ho Fan's next to last movie before a four decade long acting- and filmmaking career came to an end, he played Monk Tang in Shaw Brothers epic Journey To The West adaptation that covered 4 movies, starting with The Monkey Goes West before moving on to directing duties in the vein we would recognize. Girl With The Long Hair was an early reference work and even late in his career, Ho Fan working with lower budgets could produce funny and sexy results (most evident in Temptation Summary II). As for The Sichuan Concubines, the veteran still got his eye intact but the experiment in non-linear and symbolic narrative results in a narrative that only sporadically comes through.
Also very hard to summarize plot-wise, it concerns the setting of the Black Brick Castle that harvests poppy seed. But times are tough as the wait for a ship that is picking up the latest batches has either been intercepted by robbers or won't come at all and the boss of the castle, Chen Tsao slowly loses his mind... despite the copious amount of concubines around him (one of which is impregnated by a worker). One of the workers, Chen Mao, has an eye for one of the female workers who is also married into an abusive relationship with Kui Kong (Chan Chung-Yung - Asian Connection). Abusive in the sense that he thinks she brings bad luck to him and she struggles to raise her two children with this curse she's said to carry...
No doubt The Sichuan Concubines is an incredible visual ride and structurally wants to tell much more through pictures than dialogue plus the fact that the narrative jumps between different periods in for instance Chen Tsao's life (when he once was part of the robbing gang before inheriting the family business) makes matters hard to follow. Within the castle walls, the only life many of these characters know, there is flirtation, sexual tension and it's one piece of the in general doomsday atmosphere that lies over the picture. Sex is portrayed as steamy, beautiful and animalistic and no one is certainly NOT enjoying themselves but Chen Tsao not being able to impregnate represents another piece of doom present. It isn't a good thing that his father's outgoing ways with several concubines and opium smoking, seems to somewhat stop at Chen Tsao. But worldly circumstances possibly having to do with poverty and famine outside of the castle walls doesn't make matters stop at Chen Tsao to turn around in a positive way. Violence also creeps in as the smoke lies thick over Black Castle. Further signs and these explained tangents are ones you sporadically pick up on throughout the film but you want to be able to interpret even more.
There are scenes that are DEFINITELY arthouse and abstract in style. One involving the abused woman engulfed in smoke and a drug haze almost. Ho Fan makes his actress look absolutely gorgeous and sexy but as with a few too many set pieces if you will, the viewers are left scratching their heads while the eyes thoroughly enjoy the refined, professional cinematography. Also add an absolutely terrific score that essentially are classical sounds merged together into a frightening, intense soundscape often set to hypnotic images of the dreamscape that Black Brick Castle is.
Essentially two plot strands about a leader losing it and forbidden love amongst his lovers make up The Sichuan Concubines and enough comes through to make it interesting. Certainly interesting when filtered through Ho Fan's thought process and eye. The sense of pending doom also greatly aids but again, The Sichuan Concubines has a problem with coherency. You sense grander ideas in the grander images and since Ho Fan doesn't make the picture as pretentious feeling as you'd might thing, this is indeed a shame.
reviewed by Kenneth Brorsson