Hong Kong is a very culturally conservative city, so why was the top-grossing movie of this past Chinese New Year Golden Chickensss, the latest installment in comedienne Sandra Ng’s franchise about a somewhat stupid and extremely happy hooker that features a blow-job parlor, actors swallowing big gulps of baby batter, glory shots of 32-G breasts bouncing in super-slo-mo, plenteous dick jokes, and lots and lots and lots of sex for hire?
The short answer is: Chinese culture is full of sex. Of Buddhism’s three “impious acts,” having no children is sometimes considered the worst, and that means having sex gets a lot of cultural attention. Two classics of Chinese literature are Jin Ping Mei (aka The Golden Lotus) a filthy porno book published in 1610, and The Carnal Prayer Mat, another porn novel published in 1675. Doing their part to uphold tradition, Hong Kong has been making sex films for almost 50 years.
Hong Kong’s earliest sex flicks were the “animal comedies” of the late Sixties and early Seventies, which were basically Porky’s for businessmen. When free broadcast television appeared in 1967, the city was going through political and cultural growing pains, and sex was popping up in nightclubs, which were suddenly offering everything from bodypainting, to lady wrestling, to nude shoeshines.
Looking to lure butts into seats by offering what television couldn’t, and inspired by what was going on in the clubs, the “animal comedies” started spurting up on screen. Cheap, fast, tacky, and tasteless, they were about a bunch of guys lusting after the same girl and vying to get her in bed first. How a Strange Hero Thrice Teased an Unruly Girl (68), O.K. (69), Lucky Seven (70), Lucky Seven Strike Again (70), and Triangular Round Bed (70) were basically the forerunners of many far more family-friendly comedies of the Eighties. As the actresses (usually Tina Ti or Lee Hung) bedded politicians, blackmailed them into giving them cash, and lured them away from their wives, they demonstrated a hardheaded business sense, kneeling before their beds and praying “This bed is like a vessel of money” before making whoopee. Meanwhile, the guys spied on them in the showers, drooled over them, stared at their breasts, and hid in closets. It was all pretty chaste, especially compared to what would come later, and scenes of actual lovemaking were almost nonexistent.
Then came Sampan (69), an Australian film shot in Hong Kong that featured the city’s first full-frontal female nudity. Inspired by its scandalous success, Lee Hung stopped working as an actress and began to produce her own softcore films in 1970, as did Lu Chi, an actor who had played young romantic heroes in the early Sixties and then started producing low-budget sex films for Shaw Brothers. But it wasn’t until the one-two punch of Deep Throat (72) and Chor Yuen’s lesbian wuxia revenge flick, Intimate Confessions of a Chinese Courtesan (72), that everyone’s pants came off. In 1973, Lu Chi delivered Sexy Girls of Denmark and Adultery Chinese Style, Kuei Chi-hung’s explicit Shaw Brothers women-in-prison flick Bamboo House of Dolls hit screens, Ho Fan’s Adventure in Denmark came out, and marquee director Li Han-hsiang made Illicit Desire.
Li Han-hsiang was one of the crown jewels of Shaw Brothers, but he swung between making popular blockbusters and raunchy sex flicks. Illicit Desire was advertised as being full of nudity, but it was actually full of calligraphy, cow-stealing, and diarrhea jokes. However, his later films like Cheat to Cheat (73), Scandal (74), The Golden Lotus (74), Sinful Confession (74), That’s Adultery! (75), and Crazy Sex (76) delivered on the promise of their posters promising plenty of skin and sin.
Bruce Lee & I
In 1976, Shaw Brothers took a long piss all over the grave of Bruce Lee by producing Bruce Lee & I, a supposed “true story” by his mistress, Betty Ting Pei, who also starred in the movie alongside Danny Lee playing Bruce. Angry that they hadn’t been able to sign the now-dead superstar, Shaw’s film portrayed him as a playboy with a trampoline for a bed, and Betty as a naive girl sexually exploited by various non-Shaw producers. The following year, Shaw cashed in on the real-life starlet sex scandals they’d hinted at in Bruce Lee & I, with The Call-Girls. The first scenes of this movie are actual interviews with Shaw’s stable of stars and directors, who comment on the casting-couch scandals then sweeping through the film industry, before acting out sleazy vignettes of the thinly veiled actresses being exploited; Danny Lee returned as an investigator of these crimes.
The Eighties didn’t see many erotic films being made because the film business was doing so well that no one needed them. But then, in 1988, a film rating system was established in Hong Kong, with Category III (aka Cat III) set aside for movies that contained nudity, sex, or triad language. Producers pounced. In 1990, out of the 1,200 movies submitted for a rating, 500 were Cat III. Amy Yip appeared in a new iteration of The Carnal Prayer Mat called Sex & Zen which owed a debt to the ribald spirit of the earlier animal comedies and spun off two sequels and, in 2011, a 3-D version. Violence entered the picture with true-crime movies like Dr. Lamb (92) and Remains of a Woman (93) that included plenty of sex with their gruesome gore. Sex and violence were swirled into queasy-making cocktails in semi-true-crime movies like the infamous Red To Kill (94) about a necrophiliac serial rapist who’s headmaster of a school for retarded adults. And Wong Jing gave the genre his own schlocky stamp when he unleashed his Raped by an Angel series, racking up five installments, the first directed by Andrew “Infernal Affairs” Lau.
3-D Sex and Zen: Extreme Ecstasy
In the Nineties, as the film business crashed and burned, actresses began to get push-back from audiences for appearing in sex films, and theaters started balking at screening them, realizing that tawdry low-budget Cat III movies didn’t pull in the numbers that a big popular hit would. Today the genre is all but dead. The lure of 3-D made 3-D Sex and Zen: Extreme Ecstasy and 3-D Naked Ambition successful, with busloads of Mainland tourists attending special screenings of 3-D Sex & Zen as part of their tour package, but the days when Cat III movies dominated screens are long past.
Sandra Ng’s Golden Chicken movies are not Cat III, but instead the on-the-border Cat IIB, but they’re almost all that remains of this gloriously ribald tradition in which sex was a big messy playpen where directors could frolic. Asked about her upcoming plans, she claims she wants to produce Golden Duck, a movie about male hookers in Hong Kong, saying that men who sleep with women for money are a common sight these days.
ALL THE FLAVORS OF CAT III
Cat III has as many different genres as the Kama Sutra has positions. Here are a few of the most popular:
Erotic Ghost Story I
There are so many sex series it’s hard to keep up, but the big ones are the Erotic Ghost Story series, the Sex & Zen series, and the Yu Pui Tsuen (Golden Lotus) series. Of these, it’s not until part two that the filmmakers really start firing on all cylinders. Erotic Ghost Story I (91) is a sweet, retro charmer about some fox spirits learning to have sex with human men. Erotic Ghost Story II (91) is a “WTF was that?!?” movie in which Anthony Wong in a white fright-wig and thick makeup, looking like a refugee from a Kabuki-themed music video, plays a horny demon. Lovers are encased in ice that can only be melted by the smoking-hot naked bodies of their women; there are baths of blood and lots of flying, and it will basically melt your face off. Sex & Zen II (96) contains ejaculation contests, castration, the screen debut of Shu Qi (now a full-fledged movie star who appears in Hou Hsiao-hsien films), and features lines like, “Your vagina is a labyrinth.”
Over the Top
Cat III is the realm of over-the-top excess, and the granddaddy is Naked Killer (92), Wong Jing and Clarence Fok’s much-loved cult classic about a war between two teams of dueling lesbian hit-women and the man they love. Featuring penis-eating, poisoned lipstick, and exploding hats, this is an endless, all-you-can-eat buffet of cheesy delights. Later, a more restrained all-male version called Cheap Killers (98) appeared. Also from Wong Jing is A Chinese Torture Chamber Story (94), a parody of the demure period sex film, this time featuring all the exotic tortures of the Imperial court in a movie that centers on a man whose penis explodes when he overdoses on aphrodisiacs. It also features actor Elvis Tsui’s infamous flying martial-arts sex scene. Wong Jing is an expert at getting up to the line, but not quite crossing it. To see what crossing the line feels like, try The Fruit Is Swelling (97), a sweet story about an 8-year-old girl who wishes to grow up. Boing! Suddenly she’s 18. It’s actually a well-made charmer, until our little 8-year-old (now in a technically legal-aged body, but still…) gets a man to teach her all about bumping uglies.
Golden Chickens/Golden Ducks
Hong Kong Gigolo
Call-girl and gigolo movies have been around since the dawn of time in Hong Kong, and hostess movies like Bet on Fire (88) take place in nightclub netherworlds where no one ever goes home and dramas revolve around girls paying off their gambling bets and trying to get their customers to order one more bottle of VSOP. But sometimes the genre tries harder in movies like Call Girl '92 (from 1992) with its semi-all-star cast of B-movie beauties: Veronica Yip, Sharla Cheung, Cecilia Yip, and Carrie Ng. To its credit, it’s a well-written and acted movie about female bonding that just happens to also be a melodrama about hookers. Simon Yam starred in a series of gigolo movies in the early Nineties like Gigolo and Whore (91), Gigolo and Whore II (92), and Friday Gigolo (92), but it’s Hong Kong Gigolo (90) that manages to be the male equivalent of Call Girl '92: a drama about men in the sex business that just happens to feature copious nudity.
Girls Without Tomorrow
May We Chat
Then there are the masterpieces, many of which happen to be what’s sometimes known as “girls without tomorrow” movies. Technically, Call Girl '92 is one of these, but those hookers are far too upscale for the gutter operas we’re talking about. People often defend X, NC-17, and Cat III ratings by saying that they allow for movies about adult subjects when, in fact, they usually just allow for more porn. Queen of Temple Street (90), however, justifies the entire genre singlehandedly. Rated Cat III more for its ear-searingly foul language, this drama about a prostitute (Sylvia Chang) trying to make sure her daughter (Rain Lau) doesn’t follow in her footsteps is heartbreak in a can. Rain is determined to self-destruct by any means necessary, and it’s painful to see these two women tear into each other like chainsaws. It’s directed by Lawrence Lau, the poet of Hong Kong street movies, who in 2000 would work with Johnnie To to make Spacked Out, another Cat III movie about schoolgirls selling themselves and trying to make their way in the world. More recent is May We Chat (13), another movie about schoolgirls on the edge, this one structured like a murder mystery as one of a tight-knit group of thrillseekers go missing and her two friends set out to discover her fate.
LINKS! LINKS! LINKS!
All’s Well, Ends Well
... Speaking of Sandra Ng, she was just in New York City to get a Star Asia Award from the New York Asian Film Festival. I had the pleasure of conducting three of her Q&As during which she claimed that her favorite movie to work on was All’s Well, Ends Well, said that she had made a lot of her movies “just for the money,” and that her one regret was not having plastic surgery when she was younger. That was kind of depressing, actually.
... Bong Joon Ho’s English-language debut, Snowpiercer, rolled out to 250 theaters this weekend [http://snowpiercer-film.com/screenings] after opening on eight screens last week and hauling in a per-screen average of $21,000 for a total box office take of $171,000. It’s been gaining a lot of critical steam, with Rolling Stone calling it “the coolest movie of the summer.” Who are we to argue with Rolling Stone?
... There’s a lot of concern about what will happen to Japan’s legendary Studio Ghibli now that Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata have retired. A dissolution plan has been drawn up by founder Toshio Suzuki, according to Miyazaki, that would stop production and turn Ghibli into a five-person rights management company. However, things are moving forward for now and the director of The Secret World of Arrietty (10), Hiromasa Yonebayashi, is releasing his second movie, When Marnie Was There, later this month. It’s based on the similarly titled 1968 ghost story by Joan G. Robinson.
... Just what the world needs! Another Bruce Lee film. George Nolfi (The Adjustment Bureau) is on board to direct Birth of the Dragon, slated for release in 2015. The synopsis: “The film is inspired by the true story of Bruce Lee’s historic 1965 duel with Wong Jack Man, China’s most famous kung fu master at a time when San Francisco’s Chinatown was controlled by Hong Kong Triads. The story of the match is told from the perspective of Steve Macklin, a young disciple of Lee, who ultimately joins forces with Lee and Wong to battle a vicious band of Chinatown gangsters.” Translation: this movie is a load of horseshit. The “historic duel” has been described by spectators (and Lee’s wife, Linda) as a sissy slap fight that saw Lee chase Wong around his studio, unable to bring him to the ground. Humiliated by his inability to put down his opponent, Lee started working on his power, hoping that if such an incident occured in the future he’d be able to end it with a quick punch or two. If only he could come back from the grave and deliver those two punches to George Nolfi.
... Want to read a long Wikipedia entry? Try the one for Nora Aunor, the legendary Filipino actress, who most recently scooped up a ton of awards for her performance in Brillante Mendoza’s Thy Womb (12). Want to hear about a bad decision? Nominated to be a National Artist, she was removed from the list of nominees by President Benigno Aquino due to her arrest for carrying meth through the Los Angeles airport back in 2005. Sixty-one years old, Aunor is one of those artists whose struggles with drug abuse is part of her legend, and Filipino commentators are calling her removal from the list “a sad day for Philippine cinema.”
... Last week the Chengdu police SWAT team put up a series of awesome recruitment posters that are totally based on Hong Kong movie posters, and they are 100% Blue Steel. This week, they're showing off their softer side with smiling photos, fun signs they made with magic markers, and crossbows. All hail Chengdu SWAT!