MUBI Channel (UK) is currently hosting a series of less widely known Hong Kong martial arts films, of which one is the luridly titled "Intimate Confessions of a Chinese Courtesan" and which originates from the famous Hong Kong Shaw Bros studios, with Runme Shaw acting as producer.
I've since seen it billed as the "first Chinese sex film" and indeed there is quite a bit of nudity and implied sexual activity, given the subject matter, but it seems reasonable given the context and plot and is only mildy titillating - if anything, there is a shock element of seeing the rather dubious practices of medieval Chinese brothels that make for uncomfortable viewing, but then the film is very much in the vein of sensationalist exploitation combined with a need to satiate the appetites of audiences seeking the type of violent and bloody martial arts action that became increasingly popular in the 1970's in Hong Kong cinema and helped to build the Shaw Brother's reputation as leading film producers in S.E Asia.
Once you get past the salacious details, at the core of the plot is a story about young women , usually from poor rural communities, who were kidnapped and forced into prostitution in brothels catering to the wealthy members of Chinese society.
One of these women is the feisty "Ai-Nu" (Lily Ho) who refuses to buckle down to the violent treatment by the thugs employed by a cruel brothel madame, "Madame Chun" (Betty Pei Ti), who, being a lesbian, takes an immediate fancy to Ai-Nu and singles her out to be her lover. Ai-Nu resists and is tortured and imprisoned until she finally breaks, deciding instead to go along with Madame Chun while secretly harbouring a desire to escape by any means.
The price she has to pay for this is a high one as she is traded off to a succession of corrupt noblemen who initially deflower her and then abuse her in various ways.
Despite the luxurious life she leads with Madame Chun as a favoured courtesan and her lover, there appears to be no chance of escape for Ai-Nu and so she decides to take her own life by hanging herself, however, she is saved at the last minute by a mute male servant who takes pity on her.
The two conspire to escape after the mute confesses that he is not really a mute at all but was formally a skilled swordsman before his kidnap and enslavement by the brothel and so he and Ai-Nu are bonded by trust, if not love for each other since Ai-Nu feels herself irretrievably corrupted.
Their attempted - and ultimately futile - escape in the third act sets the stage for the main draw of the film, which is the fast, furious and dynamic "Wuxia" martial arts action that the Chinese excel at.
Into the mix is thrown a police investigator on the trail of the murderer of the same noblemen to whom Ai-Nu had been traded earlier in the film, and the suspicion falls on Ai-Nu, who skillfully manages to deflect any association to the increasingly grisly murders.
Although brothels were technically not illegal in Medieval China, how they acquired their wealth and the means they may have used to obtain women may have been, and in this case Madame Chun fears that the net is closing in on her activities as a result of the murders.
This is coupled with a supernatural element that is often a feature of these genre films - in this case Madame Chun is revealed early on to be vampiric and has acquired occult Taoist powers that make her a formidable enemy in combat, skills that she unwisely passes on to her lover and protege, Ai-Nu, in exchange for her love.
To describe the film's climax as bloody is an understatement as Ai-Nu single-handledly takes on Madame Chun's henchmen in a series of spectacular sword fights and martial arts action, culminating in a face-off between Ai-Nu and Madame Chun's male lover and right-hand man who stops short of killing Ai-Nu when Madame Chun intervenes and kills him instead, but not before losing her right arm to a blow from his sword.
However, Ai-Nu is not finished in her revenge and her true quarry was always the evil Madame Chun, which leads to a final sword fight between the two before Madame Chun loses her other arm and lies dying.
This being a Chinese film and from a culture steeped in the philosophies of Taoism and karma, a price has to be paid for the high body count resulting from Ai-Nu's desire for vengeance and Madame Chun's final act is to ask for a kiss before dying - a kiss of death as it happens for Ai-Nu since Madame Chun has eaten a poisoned pill and the film ends when the police inspector finds Ai-Nu's lifeless body after she has succumbed to the poison herself.
Many Chinese martial arts films are notable for their inclusion of strong female characters who are often more than a match for their male counterparts, and this film is no exception, using as it does the injustices meted out on women as a rationale for a martial arts action film and daringly tackling issues like same-sex relationships, even if it's viewed through the lens of 1970's exploitation cinema catering to mostly male fantasies - here cleverly upended by a very female-centric storyline in which men get their just deserts and often in the most grotesque fashion .
"Intimate Confessions of a Chinese Courtesan", Dir : Chor Yuen, 1972.