Kung Fu Chivalry | Come Drink With Me (1966)/Intimate Confessions of a Chinese Courtesan (1972) | Lumiere Feature

Illustration: Martin Wilkinson

Come Drink With Me (1966)
King Hu | Hong Kong | 91 min | Featuring: Cheng Pei Pei, Yueh Hua, Chen Hung Lieh.

Intimate Confessions of a Chinese Courtesan (1972)
Chor Yuen | Hong Kong | 90 min | Featuring: Lily Ho, Betty Pei Ti, Yueh Hua.

>>A HISTORICALLY and cinematically loaded film, King Hu's Come Drink With Me not only revitalized the wu xia1 genre, but in its stylish action sequences, set a precedent for generations of Hong Kong martial arts films to come. It was the first wu xia effort for its director, the acclaimed King Hu, and the first in a trilogy which culminated in what many consider his masterpiece, the epic A Touch of Zen.

Hu's influence is evident in the works of Tsui Hark (Zu: Warriors From The Magic Mountain), Ching Siu Tung (A Chinese Ghost Story) and more recently in Ang Lee's crossover martial arts hit Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, which paid homage to Come Drink With Me right down to the casting of its star Cheng Pei Pei in the role of Jade Fox.

In Come Drink With Me, Pei Pei plays Golden Swallow, a deadly master swordswoman who's out to retrieve her brother, a government official taken hostage by a team of bandits. Led by the ruthless Jade-Face Tiger (Chen Hung Lieh), the bandits, in exchange, want one of their own released.

Disguising herself as a man (androgyny would become a staple in wu xia films), her first stop is the inn, or teahouse, a traditional Chinese meeting place which Western viewers will recognise as the equivalent of cowboy barrooms that usually become the centre of brawls and bust-ups. Challenging the bandits single-handedly – dodging darts and fending off chairs thrown at her with a single blow – this comical and suspenseful early set piece is a great showcase for Pei Pei's skills and Hu's superb action staging.

We're also introduced us to her sidekick, a slovenly beggar named Drunken Cat (Shaw regular Yueh Hua, who was reportedly inebriated throughout the shoot). He's perhaps the film's most surprising element; in an interesting twist, Drunken Cat sheds his goofy comic relief persona, and gains a more serious, textured edge as he faces an evil Abbot whom he trained with under the same master.

As with any film carrying such historical baggage, those viewing it for the first time often wonder what the fuss is all about. If you're looking for the speedier, rat-tat-tat tempos of Lau Kar Leung's or Chang Cheh's 70s martial arts films, then Come Drink With Me will surely disappoint. The action choreography is more stilted and theatrical, bearing the influence of the Japanese samurai films of the '60s.

With Hu's fondness for Beijing opera and Pei Pei's background in dance, both director and actress complement each other perfectly. Pei Pei was only 19 at the time, untrained in martial arts, and though her inexperience is occasionally concealed in the editing, Hu lets enough long shots play out to suggest Pei Pei still had her work cut out for her. Hu's camerawork is always elegant, fluid and painterly, and perhaps the key to the film's timelessness. Pei Pei locks our eyes to the screen with a feisty and beautiful performance, her youthfulness belying her character's icy capacity to dispatch opponents without flinching.

The sets, while maintaining typically colourful, high Shaw Brothers production values, do have a theatrical look that might cause a few unintentional giggles, but it's sometimes charming in its artifice: there's a scene where a character falls into the river, and the resulting splash is clearly manufactured by having buckets of water thrown off-screen from either sides of the frame.

Hu subsequently parted ways with the Shaws – his perfectionist, individualist standards didn't gel with their studio system and populist ethos. But with Come Drink With Me, he left a crucial work in the Shaw's catalogue. Seen today, even out of context, it remains a highly entertaining, tautly spun, humorous and graceful swordplay tale that feels remarkably crisp and fresh as if it were made just yesterday.

SERVING AS A blueprint for Hong Kong's notorious Cat III flicks, Intimate Confessions of a Chinese Courtesan pushes the strong female characterisations established in '60s films like Come Drink With Me into the liberally perverse '70s. Filled with lurid sexiness, it's one of the most beautiful-looking exploitation films ever made, its mix of trashy, titillating sleaze and sumptuous production design adding to a work of pure, unaffected delirium. It's also the film that provided the inspiration for Clarence Fok's 1992 Cat III gem Naked Killer.

Intimate Confessions is directed by Chor Yuen, whose style kung fu historian Linn Haynes describes as effectively combining, "the film artistry of King Hu and the action set pieces of Chang Cheh." Proving to be the most popular and interesting discovery among the current crop of Celestial releases from the Shaw's vaults, Yuen is better known for adapting the novels of popular martial arts writer Gu Long into terrifically intricate swordplay films like Killer Clans and Clans of Intrigue. Intimate Confessions lacks the absorbing twisty plotting of those films, but compensates with a bloodthirstily linear trajectory that grows wilder with each set piece.

Lily Ho stars as Ainu, an 18-year old girl who's sold to the brothel of Lady Chun (Betty Pei Ti). Chun enjoys a healthy reputation with her clients, usually wealthy old men who bid to get their lady of choice. But when Chun attempts to initiate Ainu in the ways of the business, Ainu resists and is locked up. In her cellar, she befriends a mute boy who tries to help her escape. Failing that, she is used and abused, but also grows to be popular with her clients. She also wins the confidence of Chun, much to the dismay of Chun's business partner Bao Hu, whose repeated warnings against Ainu go unnoticed. Having fallen in love with her, Chun is oblivious to Ainu's vow to kill all her abusers. As the bodies stack up, a police officer (Yueh Hua) turns up to investigate, suspecting Ainu for the deaths, but without sufficient proof to lock her up.

One of the first things you notice about Intimate Confessions is its striking cinematography. The opening scenes are completely bathed in green, and the film continues to blind us with the lavish drapery of the sets and costumes. The intense colour Yuen splashes across the screen submerges the film in a kind of dreamy Bava-esque psychedelia. Add to that some judicious use of freeze frames and slo-mo to heighten the visceral, feverish punch of the melodrama, and you have a boldly stylish film that's as provocative visually as it is sexually.

While the eroticism here – lesbian trysts, softcore sex and nudity – would have raised many an eyebrow back then, it seems a bit tame now, but the torture scenes – crotches burnt by candles, whippings, beatings – still hold the power to disturb and make us flinch. Balancing the film's exploitative elements are the feminist themes: its underlying portrayal of men as either callow, lecherous or foolish, while Ainu constantly stays one step ahead of them.

The film's first half isn't particularly crammed to the gills with action, but the final 15 minutes are a fantastic eyeful, featuring one stunningly directed mise en scene after another. Those wonderful dolly shots following Ho as she hacks and slashes her way through dozens of men display Yuen's deft craftsmanship. The action is at once raw and blunt, and elegant and lucid. Ho really shines in a stirring, soulful performance, transforming from a stubborn, naive girl to a smart, assertive, cock-teasing femme fatale by the end. There's also some choice, campy kung fu dialogue to relish: "Your yin-yang ghost hands aren't powerful enough for my spine-chilling sword.".

A real blast and a half.

–Aaron Yap

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Originally published in: Lumière 4, Winter 2004, ISSN 1176-4082

(1) Definition of wu xia: in an article I wrote last year on the Shaw Brothers, I defined wu xia as the dumbed-down-to-the-extreme-for-the-masses, technically incorrect "sword-fighting". My granduncle Chang Kuo-sin, who was a film producer in Hong Kong from 1953 to 1960, read the article, and wrote me, correcting that error. There's more to wu xia than sword-fighting, which is only a partial component of a bigger picture. It basically describes a particular martial arts genre in literature and cinema. Wu refers to military, martial arts, chivalrous combat, fighting, etc., while xia is the knight, the swordsman, the heroic figure who fought for justice. Other elements of wu xia include the ability to fly, sorcery, elaborate weaponry, etc. In film, the term is usually wu xia pian, with pian meaning film.

In the letter he also spoke of renting out his studio to Chang Cheh, and giving King Hu his major acting role in film, and later trying to persuade Hu to return to the Shaws. On the charitable Shaws: "I at times visited Run Run Shaw in his office. The last time I visited him was at the end of 1984. Then I was Head of the Communication Department of the Baptist College, and I planned to start a film production extension course in my department. I talked to him about this. The next day he called me, asking how much I would need to start the course. I said, "One million dollars". He replied immediately, "I will give you one million dollars"...He founded a Shaw Foundation in Hong Kong. I don't know how much assets the Foundation has, but annually when I was in Hong Kong, the Foundation gave annually over HK$1,000,000 to charity. No one in Hong Kong had ever given that much to charity".

A note on the Celestial DVDs: while they are one of the best things to happen to DVD in the last couple of years, they've also been plagued by some minor problems. The early batches were non-anamorphic, and some DVDs featured subtitles that would flash twice. Currently, the only way to listen to the original mono soundtracks is to buy the cheaper VCD versions (the quality is quite good but not on par with the DVDs). Otherwise you'll have to put up with the Dolby 5.1 mix with the dreaded, already-infamous chirping birds.

PAGE 2 of 2 | © Aaron Yap / Lumière 2004
Illus: © Martin Wilkinson / Lumière 2004

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