The Notorious Concubines is based on the 12th century Chinese erotic novel Jin Ping Mei (known in the west as The Plum in the Golden Vase or The Golden Lotus), a novel still apparently banned in China although widely regarded now as a literary classic. It’s not an entirely successful film but it’s worth a look.
Jin Ping Mei is an immensely long book so the movie concentrates on selected episodes. Its biggest weakness is that it’s perhaps overly ambitious in trying to tell the entire story through flashbacks as an old man recounts the story to a dying younger man. The story is not easy to keep track of, and the narrative flow is inevitably disjointed.
Pan Chin Lien is married to an unprepossessing street vendor. Her husband’s brother Wu Sing is an important figure in the Imperial service and he’s handsome and dashing. Pan Chin Lien lusts after his body, and she lusts after the power and status that marriage with such a man would bring. It doesn’t come as a great shock when her husband meets with an unfortunate accident. Wu Sing doesn’t take this very well, and his violent reaction sees him imprisoned. He escapes and becomes leader of a gang of bandits.
Pan Chin Lien meanwhile has found herself a wealthy powerful husband, Hsi Men Ching. He has four other wives already but she’s confident she can soon dominate both the household and her new husband. Thee are various intrigues involving the other wives, and while this is happening Wu Sing is wreaking havoc and planning revenge.
Koji Wakamatsu was one of the most celebrated film-makers to emerge from the world of the Japanese pink film. The great thing about the pink film was (and to some extent still is) that as long as you include a reasonable quantity of sex and nudity you could have almost total artistic control. Koji Wakamatsu had ambitions to be both a political and an avant-garde movie-maker and the pink film gave him the opportunity to do so.
The Notorious Concubines was a more commercial project although the director still manages to use it to some degree to advance his radical political agenda.
The fairly low budget meant that the limited sets had to be augmented by the use of matte paintings. This turns out to be a plus as it enhances the feel of unreality, of listening to someone telling a tale rather than watching actual events unfold. Visually the movie works well.
The acting is competent, with Tomoko Mayama as Pan Chin Lien being particularly good. She’s a femme fatale but this was a work in which women had to be ruthless in using their beauty. It was their one chance to gain power and we cant help feeling some sympathy for her even while being horrified at times by her methods. Juzo Itami is also impressive as the cruel and depraved Hsi Men Ching.
Given the insanely strict Japanese censorship codes the sex and nudity are both very restrained. They’re PG-13 level at most. On the other hand there are some fairly graphic scenes of Hsi Men Ching flogging his wives which are definitely not PG-13. In any situation where you have strict censorship of sexual material you’re going to have film-makers compensating by upping the violence level. In this case Koji Wakamatsu manages to add a political subtext to these exploitation scenes.
The Jin Ping Mei was also filmed by Shaw Brothers in the 1970s under the title The Golden Lotus. I’m inclined to think the Shaw Brothers version is the better film overall.
Koji Wakamatsu’s version is worth seeing, especially given that so few 1960s Japanese pink films have survived. This one survived because it was one of the few to get a US release, being picked up by exploitation king Harry Novak. The US dubbed version is the only version now existing.
The Something Weird DVD release is jam-packed with extras including an entire short feature film which I’ll be watching next. And it includes some bizarre but fascinating Japanese short films.