Intimate Confessions of a Chinese Courtesan

Set in a brothel and centring on one of the establishments inmates, Intimate Confessions of a Chinese Courtesan is a film unafraid to keep its exploitation elements at the forefront of the plot. But with its lavish sets and sumptuous cinematography, director Yuen Chor manages to make the film much more than a simple sleaze-fest and deliver a rather good revenge flick packed with overt, and very effective, eroticism.

The film starts with Ainu (Lily Ho), one of many teenagers kidnapped and sold to the brothel in question. Because of her stunning looks and feisty personality, she is an immediate draw for the brothel’s very wealthy – and very well connected – clients. She also attracts the lustful attention of the brothel’s owner, Madam Chun (Betty Pei Ti).

Initially Ainu resists but, following a failed escape attempt, her spirit finally appears to be broken and she begins to settle in to the life of the brothel. In doing so, she starts to take advantage of Madam Chun’s patronage which includes learning her martial arts skills.

The relationship between Ainu and Madam Chun is the core of this film and it is very well handled. Both Lily Ho and Betty Pei Ti put in sterling performances and really do bring their characters to life as the plot begins to twist.

Unfortunately, the strength of the two leads’ performances also highlights one of the weaknesses of the film, which is that the rest of the cast are a little one-dimensional. The script focuses so heavily on the central relationship that, although the supporting actors do put in perfectly competent performances, they aren’t given a great deal to work with. The result is that these characters often feel motivated by no more than a need to progress the plot.

This is a Shaw Brothers film and, even though the action sequences are not the main focus of the film, they are central and consistently spectacular. As with the rest of the film, the focus is very much on the two women and the way in which their fighting style reflects their relationship. And given that neither of the women is a martial artist, they both put in very creditable performances here indeed.

There is much to like about this film and it does work on many levels – as a martial arts action film, as an exploitation film with something to say about exploitation and as tragedy about love and vengeance. Intimate Confessions of a Chinese Courtesan also has a depth that is often missing from films of this genre, but it really could have done with an extra half hour to more fully develop both the plot and some of the supporting characters.

The Three Trials

Writer/director Randy Greif certainly has a very unique vision, as is amply demonstrated in The Three Trials, the story of Catherine (Molinee Green), a nun with a unique form of narcolepsy.

Catherines troubles start when she stumbles across the priest of her church (Michael Q. Schmidt) indulging in fetish sex with the convents dominatrix Mother Superior (Sirena Scott). Aroused and in trouble, her troubles start when she is sent to the wonderfully grimy basement of a nearby cathedral to face the first of her trials.

The film starts very firmly in nunsploitation territory, but quickly takes a very surreal turn and becomes much, much more as Catherine is forced to confront and accept her sexuality.

Moving beyond the religious life, by way of a montage that reflects both the reality of her secular life and the submissive fantasies that are now – and maybe always were – a part of her being, Catherine finds herself living in Blackhearts Castle.

In terms of narrative, this is the most explicitly dream-like part of the film. No attempt is made to explain how she arrived here, or even where here is – and, as such, it works more as a fantasy, and a deliberately adolescent one at that. Catherine the nymph, like Catherine the nun, has a deep desire for devotion but this time around the desire is more romantic than religious.

Although the narrative here is the most dream-like, the imagery in this part of the film is the least. And Greif does manage to come up with some very striking imagery that does manage to very effectively convey the eroticism of Catherines personality. The imagery is also often quite erotic in its own right.

It also has to be noted that, regardless of the description of the synopsis so far, the film does not follow a linear narrative. It is divided into three broad sections, each of which deals with a different aspect of Catherines submissive sexuality. But, as with both personality and sexuality, these aspects do impinge on each other and – consequently – the events in the three sections do refer, backwards and forwards, to each other.

The end of the second section of the film sees Catherine being rescued by Beast (Maximilien Herholz), a sasquatch-like creature who, by the beginning of the final section, has become a man. And, as this man is more than happy to accommodate Catherines desires, we see her relationship with him becoming increasingly extreme and masochistic.

More than anything, this part of the film made me think of The Story of O and really does capture the same sense of utter submission that is portrayed in the novel. And, as with O, Catherines journey is one that follows an unrelenting logic of its own and one that is engaging, erotic and more than a little disturbing.

Where The Three Trials is unique, however, is in Greifs use of a surreal and genuinely dream-like approach to narrative, along with some deliberately absurdist elements, to obscure the boundaries between reality and fantasy. And, although the imagery does become a little self-indulgent at times, it does come together to generate a very striking, and very memorable, visual experience.

This is a film that doesnt sit comfortably in any genre but one that very effectively pulls together elements from a variety of influences to create something that both unique and very powerful indeed.

Tendres Cousines

Tendres Cousines starts with a monologue – a very long monologue – in which Julien (Thierry Tevini) introduces us to still images of the characters that we will meet over the course of the film. A lot of characters – some of them very minor – are introduced at this point, and too much information is dumped on the audience for anyone to take it all in. All you really need to know at this point is that everyone in this French country house fancies someone they shouldnt.

And then were off.

This film is a bit of an oddity in that it tries to straddle several, not entirely complementary, genres. Its essentially a sexploitation tinged coming of age story in which Julien and his cousin, Julia (Anja Schüte) discover their sexuality and their feelings for each other – as well as the rest of the household – against the background of a very pronounced class divide. While the middle class members of the two families are repressed, refined, frustrated and often predatory, the servants of the household are both raunchy and open and a lot more straightforward.

Of course, when hormonal teenagers find themselves in an environment packed with upfront shagging the opportunities for broad – very broad – humour, and the film does include some farcical scenes of the type that wouldnt be out of place in a typical Carry On film. Apart from the explicit nudity, of course.

And, if this was all that the film had aspired to – a sexploitation comedy - I would have probably enjoyed it for what it was. However, watching this left me with the rather unfortunate impression that director, David Hamilton would like us to take the film more seriously than it deserves.

The film is set in 1939, just before the outbreak of war, and we do have a few references to events going on in the wider world. But if this was a stab at injecting some drama into the film, its a rather half-hearted one and one that undermines both the comedy and sexploitation elements that make up the rest of the film.

The result is a film which, while being pretty to look at doesnt really work as a film. Its mildly titillating rather than erotic, silly rather than funny and pedestrian rather than dramatic.

David Hamilton is quite well regarded as a photographer and I dont doubt that his soft-focus style works perfectly well on the page. Unfortunately, being a competent photographer doesnt necessarily translate into an affinity for either character or narrative, as this film amply demonstrates.

Kama Sutra: The Secrets of the Art of Love

Kama Sutra: The Secrets of the Art of Love Back in the 1990s someone noticed a loophole in the UK censorship laws that allowed soft porn films to be sold through normal channels as long as they included some educational element. There followed a small flurry of films which featured a series of sex scenes, each followed by a talking head discussing what had just happened – these were the films for which the fast forward button was invented.

Kama Sutra: The Secrets of the Art of Love is very much in this mould. What we get this time around is a series of couples simulating sex in a variety of positions while a breathy woman provides a voice-over commentary.

Beautifully shot and sensually lit, and presented in both standard and 3D versions, this film is clearly aimed at couples.

Between them, the three – very attractive – couples in the film work their way through a total of fifty sexual positions, each with the obligatory voice over. But in a 75 minute film, that doesn’t add up to a great deal of time for each position.

It also became noticeable as the film wore on that, although fifty positions are featured, there are a lot less than fifty ways to film them. The commentaries also ran into a similar problem. Individually, they were all very well done but, as the film progresses, it becomes increasingly apparent that there is a limit to the number of things you can say about any given position.

All of this makes it very much a film to dip in and out of rather than one to watch straight through. But, if you have a reasonably open-minded partner, this is also a film that could well inspire a whole weekend of fun.

Actiongirls: Soldiers of the Dead part 1

Actiongirls poster With all the recent hype about Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez failing to reinvent the exploitation genre with Grindhouse, it is refreshing – to say the least – to find someone like Scotty JX who reminds us that these films never went away in the first place.

Actiongirls (I’m not going to type out the full title every time) is set in a post-apocalyptic near future in which society has fallen apart and power has fallen into the hands of increasingly corrupt gangs. The most notorious of these is controlled by one Helman Himmler, a slave trader who has assembled an army of followers across Europe. He and his followers spend their time searching for – and capturing – women who are turned into gladiators for his Arena of Death, the winners of which would gain a privileged place at his side.

All of this is explained in a (rather lengthy) chunk of text that runs over the top of the opening scenes, and then we are into the film proper which centres on two main characters.

Susana (Susana Spears) is one of Himmler’s gladiators. Recognising that the only way to survive as a captive is to fight – and fight well – she rises to become his most successful fighter and a trusted member of his entourage – with slaves of her own – until she sees the opportunity to escape.

The Black Queen (Adriana Zarcova, looking rather gorgeously like she’s just stepped out of an Ilsa movie) is Himmler’s most prized possession. But she is tiring of his endless affairs and starts looking for opportunities of her own.

After escaping, Susana rescues Emile (Emile Kova), and takes her under her wing. The two women take over a – surprisingly well appointed – apartment and start to consider their next move.

Actiongirls is a sexploitation film and, of course, there is plenty of nudity. But there are very few actual sex scenes. Apart from a very erotic lesbian s/m bondage scene early on, the film is much more interested in showing off – and admiring – beautiful naked, and scantily clad, women in a variety of situations – such as showering, fighting in a gladiatorial area or battling zombies.

Another Actiongirls poster Did I mention battling zombies?

This is where Actiongirls really moves into a league of its own. During a raid The Black Queen discovers a formula that allows her to reanimate the dead as super-soldiers totally subservient to their master… or mistress.

And from here on in it’s sexy babe kicking fast zombie butt all the way.

Actiongirls is an unashamedly fun film. It’s also a much better film than I was expecting. The production values are remarkably good and, although there are a few inconsistencies, the plot does hold together very well.

The film is also packed with in jokes and references to other films and genres from the Mad Max inspired genre of post apocalypse movies to women in prison films by way of both Herbert West and Ilsa.

My only real gripe is the ending which isn’t. This is – as the title makes abundantly clear – intended as the first part of a series. This is fine and I will be keen to see part two, but there is no real sense of closure with the end of part one.

But this is a minor complaint, more than made up for by the fact that this is a film that knows its audience and delivers exactly what it promises.