Synopsis: She’s got a killer secret! In one of the most outrageous and taboo-smashing Shaw Brothers classics, sweet young Ainu (Lily Ho, Water Margin) is abducted and sold off to the popular Four Seasons brothel run by lusty madam (Betty Pei Ti, Clans Of Intrigue), who falls for her nubile charge and entrusts her with a number of martial arts secrets like “Ghost Hands,” which allows a fighter to plunge into an opponent’s chest. Soon murder erupts within the brothel, and a policeman must race against time to prevent a vicious revenge plot from reaching its blood-spattered conclusion. The basis for modern Hong Kong sexy-action favorites like Naked Killer, this erotic, eye-scorching cult classic remains one of the wildest martial arts films ever made!
Ai nu 7.5
eyelights: the lovely but vicious Lady Chun. the enthusiastic martial arts action. the sexy subtext.
eyesores: the scenes of rape and torture.
‘Ai nu’ is a story of revenge that takes place in Imperial China (possibly the Qing dynasty, although that isn’t established). It concerns Ai nu, a young woman forced into bondage by Lady Chen, a powerful Madam. Soon realizing that she cannot resist her captor, she allows herself to be molded, biding her time. Vengeance will come.
I stumbled upon ‘Ai nu’ at my local pawn shop one day, as I was browsing its shelves. I knew nothing about it, but was drawn by the alluring women on the cover, the promise of sapphic eroticism and the inevitably glamourous martial arts extravaganzas (this is, after all, a Shaw Bros. production – martial arts were their stock in trade).
I half expected ‘Ai nu’ to be cheap and exploitative, however, given that it was released in 1972.
I’ve seen a few martial arts pictures from that era, and let’s just say that they aren’t exactly huge productions – they’re make-do affairs that try hard, but manage with very little. Sadly, the same can usually be said for their scripts, which are frequently simplistic and/or full of plot holes. They’re often not particularly sophisticated.
Then there are the “pinky violence” martial arts films of the era, which were exploitation films geared at audiences who wanted liberal doses of sex with their gory violence. They were gratuitous in all respects and could be offensive in many ways – particularly in the manner in which the female characters were treated.
Thankfully, although ‘Ai nu’ may flirt with those conventions, its exploitation roots only truly show in the beginning, in what is inarguably the most unpalatable part of the picture: Ai nu, having been kidnapped along with a few others, is subjected to sexual humiliation and some violence. Thankfully, the rest of the picture focuses on her revenge.
What I like is that the female characters are not of your typical wallflower variety.
Ai nu is extremely feisty and will not be prodded as the others were. This firey spirit is what will allow her to survive the failed escape that she and an enamoured servant attempt. Once she sees that Lady Chen is too powerful, she puts on a mask and buries herself temporarily, always keeping her eye on her ultimate goal. She is smart, capable and resilient.
Lady Chen is perhaps even stronger: she is a kung fu expert and can outmaneuver any man, even many of them at once. She runs her brothel with an iron grip, doesn’t allow anyone to break her rules and swiftly punishes those who do. She is also callous, herself having been forced into prostitution a decade prior, and she remains unfazed and confident at all times.
But she does have a weakness: she has an eye for the lovely Ai nu.
And this is where things get tricky. She is so self-assured and lustful that she makes the mistake of becoming complacent and trusting that Ai nu has been converted. So she teaches her the ropes and Ai nu becomes second only to Lady Chen, becoming her partner and lover. Lady Chen would defend Ai nu even when it becomes clear that she has been tricked.
One key element that I really enjoyed in the picture is that Ai nu is always half a step ahead of the law. It’s quite clear that she is killing off the men who violated her, but there is no solid proof, so she is never charged and arrested. But it’s always a really close call – enough so that it defies credulity to some degree. But it shows how sharp she is.
I also really enjoyed the sets and costumes. Oh, sure, it all looks fake, but it’s so detailed and pretty that I found it splendid to look at. I also enjoyed the martial arts: even though many of the participants were only moderately skilled, it’s well coordinated, and the two women are actually quite convincing; they were clearly the best of the lot.
The light homoeroticism was obviously welcome (why wouldn’t I like watching two beautiful women make out?). There isn’t much of it (a kiss, some suggested naughty stuff), but it peppered things nicely. What I didn’t like was the opening violations of the women who were kidnapped. I mean, seriously, although it’s contextually appropriate, it was gratuitous.
All and all, though, I rather enjoyed ‘Ai nu’; it was a nice surprise. I don’t know if this was Shaw Brothers’ answer to the pinky violence films, but it was a decent enough film as far as those types go. For me, the main attraction is the fact that our two leads may have once been victims, but they took charge of their destinies afterwards.
They kicked ass. And, to me, that kicks ass.
Date of viewing: July 7, 2014