Intimate Confessions Of A Chinese Courtesan (1972)

Directed by: Chor Yuen
Written by:
Chiu Kang-Chien
Runme Shaw
Lily Ho, Betty Pei Ti, Yueh Hua, Tung Lin, Wang Chung-Shan, Fan Mei Sheng, Ku Wen-Chung, Chan Shen, Fang Mian & Chan Ho

Yueh Hua plays chief police Chi Te hot on the trails of courtesan Ainu (Lily Ho) who is exacting revenge on those who forced her into prostitution and the men who forced themselves upon her. Betty Pei Ti is the madam of the brothel responsible for Ainu's training but what she doesn't see though, since she's head so head over heels in love with Ainu, is that she's in the crosshairs of Ainu's as well...

Although noted for his voice within and the eye he provided for complex Wuxia tales brought to the screen as Killer Clans, Clans of Intrigue, Heaven Sword and Dragon Sabre etc, here in the early stages of Chor Yuen’s Shaw Brothers career (that had produced pretty straightforward but intense, raw action so far in the likes of Duel For Gold and The Killer), Intimate Confessions Of A Chinese Courtesan appears as a standout effort in everything from design to content. Beautiful, captivating and for its time rather controversial, audiences might’ve known to expect violence from a Shaw Brothers film but Chor Yuen’s brew of upfront sexuality, lesbianism and sleazy elegance drew crowds to the tune of over 1 million Hong Kong dollars at the box office (making it a hit on release in July of 1972). It might not have been perceived as something of artistic value but over time, the tale of Ainu lost very little of its power and gained a good chunk of respect as a trailblazer. Critics in the wake of Intimate Confession Of A Chinese Courtesan frame it as not an old fashioned but rather a gutsy film, with Clarence Fok (who helmed a modern, softcore re-interpretation as Naked Killer in 1993 for producer and writer Wong Jing and who admitted to being infatuated with Chor Yuen’s elegant style, applied it to his own creative thinking and regarded Chor Yuen as his master, having been introduced and connected to him through personal- and business associates) summarizing that Chor Yuen’s film might be rooted in the Chinese action picture but is European in style. Critics saw the film as being influenced by dirty, gritty violence present in US films rather than Hong Kong as well but breaking away from convention by being the mixture it was actually didn’t open the floodgates as much as you'd think. Instead, Intimate Confession’s raw bloodshed and eroticism would be allowed to stand on its own, with its head held up high. 

Working the story of cold and gleeful exploitation in the atmospheric setting of winter time, that means Chor Yuen is making room for equal doses harsh, oppressing and elegant. Very much a disciplined work, across 90 minutes there’s no extensive fat or treks to get to the next crucial beat but it doesn’t mean Chor Yuen is oversimplifying his tale either. Because those eyes of Ainu’s are sincere, sad and mixing contrasts of the brothel’s clientele and the backroom prepping and training of new arrivals emphasizes Lady Chun’s coldness. This is a business with walking chunks of pleasure flesh. However Chor Yuen is not being titillating and graphic for the sake of it but instead gets the point across through establishing said contrasts as his camera moves past the extensive work by the costume department to the dirtier sets and seeing Betty Pei Ti’s external perfection, watchful eyes over this reveals a low key demeanor and command of her stable.

There’s certainly room for perversion and sadism, both from Lady Chun and the core group of men that damages Ainu, and sights such as Lady Chun licking Ainu’s wounds are iconic images that linger today. Especially so since through quite sparse and effective exposition, we swing back and forth in our determination whether Betty’s character is weakened by Ainu or if the character who deserves revenge is playing manipulated even when she’s in fact acting as the puppet master, using her allure and sexuality to exploit the weak men in power positions. We’re here to root for Ainu so that’s why Chor Yuen depicting her as alone in the shadows, with no one fighting for her is so affecting and equally effective is Lily Ho’s performance as Ainu tailors herself after Lady Chun and crafts the string needed to pull events into place for her benefit. Including manipulating the lawman (Yueh Hua in a charismatic performance despite the actor appearing in nearly 10 films that year).

Finding natural spots to put Simon Chui’s action directing skills and team of stuntmen to work, being early 70s there is a way more impactful, loud, brutal, messy nature to swordplay in what arguably is the fanciful, fantastical martial world. There’s room for leaps, acrobatics, special techniques such as the deliciously violent ‘Ying Yang Ghost Hands’ and pretty extensive bloodshed in particular towards the back end that surprises us with cleverly conceived severing of limbs in the weapons fights that occur. 

Everyone will leave Intimate Confessions Of A Chinese Courtesan with the upfront sexuality in memory but Chor Yuen remains very delicate and secure in his direction and continues to pick his spots where it’s ok to open the doors of excess a little bit. We get nudity, an orgy while an elderly client hopped up on an aphrodisiac and it’s delightfully entertaining seeing the equally delicate but devious Ainu work her plan and men. She’s obviously not been spared in the early going and being a dangerous world of depravity and selfishness, there’s no surprise darkly, ironic twists do occur (the line ‘You have your conscience still and a little love in your heart’ is key and quite felt). But Chor Yuen setting out to be an efficient filmmaker has made a clever mixture of to the point story telling exercise, working a template that is easy to get into and through and when it’s dressed up in this combo of majestic and sexual sights, no wonder Ainu and Intimate Confessions Of A Chinese Courtesan stood out and stayed around.

reviewed by Kenneth Brorsson