Bruce Lee died of cerebral edema in the Hong Kong apartment of screen beauty Betty Pei Ti. It was 1973 and he was married; she was to play a nurse in Game of Death, his fifth movie. The most salacious of the rumors was not that they’d been having sex at the moment of Lee’s death, but still this was a rumor. It was certainly true that the edema was induced by a painkiller Pei Ti had given him, and that he died in her bed.
The Taiwanese starlet had killed before, if only onscreen, in an erotic martial arts thriller whose weak men—unlike Lee and his virile, athletic kind—can be discarded with great force and little stealth. Intimate Confessions of a Chinese Courtesan (1972) was the first foray into lesbian content for Shaw Brothers, the Hollywood-style production giant that churned out countless kung fu classics from its Hong Kong studio. Copping to the villain-or-victim trope that governed gay film and television characters of the period, the Mandarin-language feature pitted Pei Ti’s Lady Chun, the brutal madam of a medieval Chinese brothel, against the most defiant of her many captives, a teacher’s daughter named Ai Nu, or “love slave” (Shaw sex kitten Lily Ho). After Ai Nu is caned at Lady Chun’s behest, then raped by her, then sedated and raped by the elderly father of a local politician, then restrained and raped by the three gentlemen who hadn’t bid as adventurously, she pledges to avenge herself. She becomes Lady Chun’s lover and protégé in work and in swordplay, turning her rapists into exclusive clients and killing each of them in the clutch of their gratification. Lady Chun is last on her list, but also vice-versa. Dying of the wounds she taught Ai Nu to dispense, the older woman beckons her for a final kiss. With her tongue, Lady Chun slips Ai Nu the crushed sediment of a poison pill.
What makes a murderess? That Lady Chun should kill by tongue and not by sword suggests one answer: womanly murder is sneaky, not noble; emotional, not exertive; personal, not public. Though some women can fight like men, and better, too—witness Ai Nu cutting down the brothel’s robed pimps and lacquered columns on her way to Lady Chun—they are ruled ultimately by the feminine, and in a limited reading of Confessions the ingénue-turned-warrior must shed her ingenuousness on this point and give up manly victory, lest the film become revolutionary. But because Ai Nu’s killer is a woman, the film carries a different revolutionary strain, in which men are already defeated and maleness is the only threat that remains. It is not the feminine within Ai Nu that weakens and kills her, but the feminine without, the super-feminine love of women for women, which Ai Nu betrays by only pretending to love the vicious, adoring Lady Chun. Ai Nu does not die because she is a woman, but because she is not woman enough to combine violence with love.
In the rape-revenge section of the exploitation film library, Lady Chun has little company on the shelf for lesbian antagonists belonging secretly to the political vanguard. Her subgeneric sisters are more likely to resemble the sociopathic vixen Ray Parkins, who in 1982’s Sudden Impact rapes two sisters, butchers one of them, and ten years later says to the other, “So, the bitch is here. Tell me, how’s your slut sister?” However, aggression easily cohabits with affection in women-in-prison films, where wholesome new convicts enter homosocial worlds that either break them or are broken—or something in between, as in one of the earliest women-in-prison entries, John Cromwell’s Caged (1950). Bette Davis refused a role in the “dyke movie,” described blusteringly by the trailer’s male voiceover: “Here women without men live only for the moment of freedom while the bars of their cage seem to close into them in a mad swirling pattern of terror.” That terror emanates in Caged from a sadistic dyke matron, and a manipulative dyke prisoner, toward the soft-spoken naïf Marie, whom it bewitches—head shaved, Marie gets parole by accepting a job on the outside that is actually a front for shoplifting. The warden instructs her secretary to keep Marie’s file open: “She’ll be back.” By Caged logic, return is a form of mastery.
As for Ai Nu, she is too dead and the brothel too ruined for any returning. Still, she has been initiated into a system, and its conventions offer her solace beyond the fiction of escape through revenge and death. As they do for the viewer; escape may be the narrative premise of Confessions, but the rewards of the film are more lasting. For instance, the seaweed wash on the opening scene: green snow coats chattering green branches and the unbreathing green belly of Ai Nu’s first kill, an open roof above. The scene repeats later in natural color and in context and chronology, but for now this is death without life preceding, and so iconic and continuous. Also: the mutant pinks of the silken brothel uniforms, the slinking movements of the women wearing them, the two-stringed violins wobbling offstage in time with that slinking; the wax-museum tears pasted to Ai Nu’s cheek when she is caned; the cymbals and funky brass that sound when she kills; the freeze-frame that jostles in and out when she’s raped. Aesthetic pleasure is so discordant with the film’s subject, and each facet of that pleasure so exactingly enforced, that we learn to sublimate. We enjoy even as we deplore. We learn the regulations.
To disarm Lady Chu in the final fight, Ai Nu literally de-arms her. The act is gruesome, and no less so for being weirdly bloodless; under each of Lady Chu’s shoulders gape inky red ovals giving no fluid. Quentin Tarantino says he watched hundreds of Shaw Brothers films in the run-up to shooting his Kill Bill series. This makes sense. Tarantino’s genre mash-up produces an extremity fog beneath which all features are extreme, but only some are visible—just as, in Confessions, dry lips barely graze powdered cheeks while a mute prison guard is impaled in the groin and disemboweled. Yet the sex seems realer and the gore faker than all that. This messaging strategy is the film’s most dearly held regulation, and the brothel’s as well. Love is concealed and violence is glorified, because that’s how the vulnerable become powerful, and that’s how the powerful become more powerful. Ai Nu says to Lady Chu in her first and final confession, “I wanted to use hatred for revenge but I failed. Then I came up with the most brilliant idea in the whole world. I used love to take my revenge.” Then she dies anyway, not having loved anyone but herself.
Intimate Confessions of a Chinese Courtesan plays Monday, February 17 at BAM.