Friday, July 10, 2009
REVIEW: Notorious Concubines
Running time: 90 min.
Reviewed by Marc Saint-Cyr
In 1972, Kôji Wakamatsu made the clunky, poorly written "Ecstasy of the Angels", which is about the various antics of an ill-fated terrorist cell. It didn’t overly impress or even entertain me when I saw it, and upon learning that he also directed "Notorious Concubines", made three years previous, my expectations for that film dropped significantly. I braced myself for the same sloppy focus on sex and violence and shameless neglect of little things like character and plot. In the end, were my fears warranted?
Oh, indeed they were – and how. Made by a Japanese cast and crew but, evident from the characters’ names, set in Imperial China (the source material is the highly acclaimed novel "The Golden Lotus", which dates back to the Ming Dynasty), "Notorious Concubines" follows the trials and tribulations of a woman named Chin Lien and her various lovers. In the beginning, she has an affair with her rice vendor husband’s brother Wu Sung, who is captain of the guard. When he rejects her out of guilt, she murders her husband and begins to seduce the upper-class Men Ching (played by Juzo Itami, later director of "Tampopo" and "A Taxing Woman"). Eventually they marry, making her his fifth wife. Naturally, she draws scorn and jealousy from his other wives, but her problems truly intensify when Men Ching first punishes her for her insolent, treacherous nature, then takes on a sixth wife. After his infant son dies, the womanizer submerges himself in a drunken haze, leaving him wide open to both Wu Sung, who has reinvented himself as an outlaw, and, of course, Chin Lien.
"Notorious Concubines" mainly suffers from the same kinds of problems that made "Ecstasy of the Angels" such a muddled mess. Substantial character development is pretty much shunted aside in favor of numerous displays of brutality, gore and (mostly) sex. The film is chock full of nudity and soft-core sex scenes that are artfully obscured by veils, water and conveniently-placed pillars and bushes (though in one scene, a blurred-out bubble comically pops onscreen whenever a writhing female victim happens to face the camera the wrong way). Then there are the many scenes in which Men Ching whips his disobedient wives and ties up a naked Chin Lien as punishment. It’s almost as if "Notorious Concubines" was custom-made to provoke and frustrate feminist viewers – especially considering how so much female flesh is exposed in its duration, yet Men Ching himself never disrobes once (and I’m hard-pressed to recall if any other male character does so either).
Wakamatsu does try to maintain some semblance of style throughout the film, every now and then throwing in artsy touches like high angle shots from the ceiling, low angle shots from the bottom of a well, a sequence in which Wu Sung is tortured by images of Chin Lien amid falling snowflakes and lighting techniques that fill the screen with bright tones of orange and yellow. Yet such elements are too few and far in-between; not the signs of a specific vision so much as a handful of efforts to glean some sort of artistic merit. Overall, they make Wakamatsu out to be little more than a C-grade Seijun Suzuki.
I make no mistake in realizing what kind of movie "Notorious Concubines" is – hell, the bad English dubbing makes that clear enough (plus it was presented in the U.S. by exploitation connoisseur Harry Novak). Yet even when considered as part of the trash cinema subgenre (which is capable, in its own way, of producing good movies), it’s a clear failure. Cheesy, boring and often downright insulting to good taste, this is one flick I’m all too glad to put behind me.
Read more by Marc Saint-Cyr at his blog.