The Tiger Killer v. The Golden Lotus, Part 3: Li Han-Hsiang

The story of Wu Song the "Tiger Killer"; and Pan Jinlian the "Golden Lotus" (because of her tiny feet), has been told and retold, again and again. Especially by director Li Han-Hsiang, who has obsessively directed no less than four films about the subject.

Also see: Part One | Part Two

Li Han-Hsiang is, along with Chang Cheh, one of the most important and defining directors at Shaw Brothers studio. It was Li who convinced the Shaws to try costumed drama, and Huangmei opera, to great success. If he hadn't, the studio might not have become as famous as it is today. Run Run Shaw eventually also put him in charge of props and costumes, a logical choice to anyone having seen his films. He is, if nothing else, a master of art direction. When his films fail to completely engage the viewer, or the story somehow fails to reach expectations, which is quite often the case with Li's films, the gorgeous design is at least never in question. He left Shaws in 1963 for Taiwan, but his career foundered there and so he returned in the early seventies. But by then, the trends that he began for Shaws in the 60s were over. No one wanted to see Huangmei Opera anymore. So instead, he was tasked with making soft-core erotica. Sometimes historical, sometimes not, sometimes made as short story anthologies. In each case he brought the same care to dressing the studio sets as he did to undressing the stars, if not more so. In fact it must be said that for erotica, his films are not very erotic. Sometimes the films are like watching people making out on Antiques Roadshow or something. One of his better erotica films is his 1974 adaptation of the CHIN PING MEI, titled THE GOLDEN LOTUS [1].

THE GOLDEN LOTUS opens immediately with Pan Jinlian (played by Shaw Brothers starlet Hu Chin at the peak of her career, this being one of over a dozen films she appeared in this year) dropping the rod on the head of Ximen Qing (Yeung Kwan), signaling that the focus of this tale will be on these two characters, rather than the Wu brothers. Surprisingly, a baby-faced young Jackie Chan plays the pear vendor here, giving the film some additional interest for Hong Kong cinema buffs -- certainly it is nothing like any of Chan's subsequent work. The first half of the movie covers the affair of Pan Jinlian and Ximen Qing, and the poisoning of poor elder Wu (played here as kind hearted simpleton by Chiang Nan). The second half continues with the story of the Ximen household, as he marries Jinlian and subsequently seduces Chingmei (a maid of the household, played by Chan Ping), and his neighbor's wife Li Ping-er (Tien Ni). These are the three titular heroines of the CHIN PING MEI: Pan JIN(CHIN)lien, Li PING-er, and ChingMEI. Surprisingly, Li Han-Hsiang puts the story together in such a way that Wu Song is completely excised from the picture.

Hu Chin with Yeung Kwan on top, from The Golden Lotus

With no Wu Song, Pan Jinlian is the heroine of the film, if anyone is, as Ximen Qing is simply repulsive and Madame Wang, the matchmaker next door, becomes the outright villain who schemes Ximen Qing into Pan Jinlian, blackmails her to remain there, then orchestrates elder Wu's horrible murder.

The movie does well consolidating many of the early episodes of the sprawling book into an easily digestible hour and a half. For the first time, we see Chapter 27 of CHIN PING MEI brought to the screen, the "Drunken Orgy under the Grape Arbor". Apologies to sensitive readers who have made it this far: I'm omitting a lot of the detail, but kinky is a mild way to describe what comes next:

He then took off [Pan Jinlian]'s embroidered shoes, unwound her foot bindings, and amused himself by using them to suspend her two feet from the grape arbor overhead, so that she looked just like "A Golden Dragon Extending its Claws". [2]

They then proceed with the position "Inserting the Arrow Upside Down." That's when the maid, Chun Mei, arrives, and he begins chasing her around, laughing, and drinking wine, until he remembers Pan Jinlian is still tied up in a very compromising position and decides to play "Shooting the Silver Goose with the Golden Pellet":

Thereupon, he reached into the bowl of ice water for a jade-yellow plum and pitched it at the orifice of the woman's vagina.

When he gets tired of that, he takes a nap for a couple hours, then wakes up, fishes a plum out of her, feeds it to her, then finally applies his special aphrodisiac and finishes up.

Li Han-Hsiang gets some major credit as a director for filming this scene in such a way that it would probably pass for PG-13, today. Though, it isn't particularly erotic nor pleasant: it wasn't until reading the book that I realized that Pan Jinlian was supposed to be enjoying the experience.

Are we having fun yet? "Orgy in the Grape Arbor" from The Golden Lotus

THE GOLDEN LOTUS marked the first time that the famous director would attempt to bring the story to the screen. It would not be the last. The making and remaking of this story would become a lifelong obsession. In 1982, when Li Han-Hsiang decided to take another stab at the story, he approached it from the SHUI-HU ZHUAN side and made THE TIGER KILLER (1982) [3].

THE TIGER KILLER does something very novel during the opening credits: it steps back to an earlier time to show us the Wu brothers relationship before the events of the classic tale. Here we find that their parents died, and elder brother is raising Wu Song on his own while selling wheat cakes on the street. When he sells some cakes to a breastfeeding woman, he asks her to breastfeed baby Wu Song, whom he has tucked away under his table, in exchange for payment. The elder Wu is heartbreakingly kind, and takes every abuse rather than cause trouble. We see how wise this is when as a young boy Wu Song gets angry and starts fighting with the kids who are surrounding his brother and calling him names like "Three-inch Mulberry-bark Manikin". They end up smashing up the alley and the wheat cake vendor must take responsibility for the damage. In desperation, he finally gets a temple to take in the young boy.

Wu Song, all grown up, as played by Ti Lung in The Tiger Killer

When the younger brother returns a man, as Wu Song, the Tiger Killer, the strong, handsome hero, you can see he adores his elder brother, who was after all his father and mother, too. Elder Wu loves him right back, and when happy slaps his legs with his hands, smiles all the time, and even hops up and down. Basically, he is completely adorable. The elder Wu is played by veteran Shaw Brothers actor Ku Feng, in the role of a lifetime, with twisted teeth, an angry mole on his forehead, and always walking hunched over and crouched down. Its obviously artificial, but Ku Feng sells his appearance so convincingly that it doesn't matter a bit. Ti Lung plays Wu Song, and again the casting, and the performance, is pitch perfect. This time around Li Han-Hsiang teased actual motivation out of the classic story, and created convincing, compelling characters out of theatrical archetypes. Even Pan Jinlian (Wang Ping) is somewhat sympathetic; the abuse she suffered before her marriage, and the fact that the marriage itself was arranged as a punishment, is certainly responsible for some of her behavior. Unfortunately for her Ku Feng is so likable that the first time she even just looks at him with disapproval you pretty much hate her guts anyway.

Ti Lung and Ku Feng as brothers in The Tiger Killer

In THE TIGER KILLER, for the first time in adaptations of this tale, the events depicted connect in thoughtful and satisfying ways, enriching the original text. So when Wu Song is promoted to assistant constable in the village, his first task is to punish a chicken thief, who instead he gives money to so that he can start selling pears. So, when the pear vendor sees what is going on, he feels a responsibility to tell the elder Wu because of the kindness shown him by the younger. And again, later, when Wu Song is sent to the capitol, it turns out that it is Ximen Qing who recommends him to be sent there, to clear the way for his wooing of Pan Jinlian. In this way bridges are created between all the traditional story elements. In many of the other adaptations, these bridges are created crudely, through the use of voice-over narration, if at all.

Of the four attempts Li Han-Hsiang made at bringing the story to the screen, this is by far the best. Best acting, best script, best directing. Even the director's usual claustrophobic, intricate, village street sets are offset for once by expansive outdoor scenes that are not stagebound. There is even -- for the first time -- a real tiger! Well, not in close-ups. But still!

This wasn't the first time Ti Lung as Wu Song fought Ximen Qing at Lion Restaurant -- that same scene -- which ends this picture, actually plays as the opener of 1972's DELIGHTFUL FOREST. It is the perfect film to watch immediately after THE TIGER KILLER, even though it was made ten years earlier (Ti Lung looks pretty much the same).

The law of diminishing returns is now firmly in place but we must forge boldly ahead anyway. In 1991 Li Han-Hsiang returned to the source material a third time with GOLDEN LOTUS: LOVE AND DESIRE [4], but he focuses the now firmly soft-core porn action on Ximen Qing's wooing and conquest of Li Ping-Er, and on catching Pan Jinlian having sex with one of his servants, and her subsequent punishment: all events which take place in the CHIN PING MEI later than the Wu Song story that is the primary concern of this article.

The movie begins in an interesting way, first by showing books and woodcut prints of the CHIN PING MEI, then showing old Li Han-Hsiang himself directing the opening scene of the film. One of the actors in period costume talks briefly on his mobile phone as he waits for the scene to begin. But the concept of drawing back to show the artifice of the picture disappears after this opening scene, and what remains is depressingly banal. The tragedy of Li Han-Hsiang's creative output is complete: from lavish Huangmei Opera films and sweeping historical dramas, to naughty but mild sex comedies that still at least show the hand of a master of art direction if nothing else, to at last, cheap "Skinemax" filler with little redeeming quality. There's no delicate way to say it: the film is ninety minutes of tits and whips.

Pan Jinlian, fit to be tied in Golden Lotus: Love and Desire

But you can't say that Li Han-Hsiang is a quitter. Because not three years later he was back at it again in his fourth attempt, this one called THE AMOROUS LOTUS PAN [5], not to be confused with the 1963 Huangmei Opera version of the same name. Once again, the focus is on the Wu Song/Pan Jinlian story, and once again, Li Han-Hsiang develops a new angle, by taking a fresh look at the attempted seduction of Wu Song by Pan Jinlian and asking, "What if it had pretty much succeeded?" This time around, Wu Song gets drunk, Pan Jinlian slips him a roofie, and then humps the hell out of him while he lays there unconscious. He wakes up just enough to enjoy the end, in a sort of half awake/half sleeping dream, and then he wakes up and realizes what he's done...

Another way this version takes a unique approach is to begin at the end of CHIN PIN MEI, when Wu Song is released from prison, and he hears what has happened in flashback -- that Pan Jinlian became a wife of Ximen Qing, that Ximen Qing died of aphrodisiac overdose, that Pan Jinlian was sold back to Ms. Wang to sell to the highest bidder while she continued her escapades with just about anyone who happens by. Wu Song makes the arrangements to get her out, and pays Ms. Wang and Pan Jinlian back in full, but even then, the act of stabbing Pan Jinlian is just another form of penetration, suggesting Wu Song's weak character and submission to her desires. Huang Mei-tsing delivers a powerful performance as Pan Jinlian: very sexy, very willful, addicted to sex, yet despite her corruption, somehow nearly as sympathetic as some of the more innocent Pan's of films past.

Pan Jinlian, assuming the position once again in The Amorous Lotus Pan

So there are redeeming qualities to this, the last of Li Han-Hsiang's adaptations, one of the last movies he made before he died of a heart attack while shooting a TV series a couple years later. But something needs to be said about the sex scenes in this one. I thought the "tits and whips" aesthetic of the last was as kinky as you could go, but this time Li pulled out all the stops. Much of the sex is non-consensual, and in fact, the male participant not even conscious (at least twice). We are encouraged to watch when she allows the elder Wu to (unsuccessfully) pleasure her on their wedding night while she is reading a book. At one point, a glory hole is employed (if you're not familiar with the term, please don't google it while at work), and even a comparatively normal lovemaking scene has to include Ms. Wang, greedily watching every move with an abacus in hand, hoping to charge per type of sexual act.

And finally, we get to Pan Jinlian's most attractive feature to the men of the era of CHIN PIN MEI: her feet. Her "Golden Lotus", her tiny feet. Why are they so tiny? Foot binding, of course. The art of mangling and disfiguring a woman's foot from birth so that she looks attractive to men. The ultimate foot fetish culture, Qing dynasty pornographic books listed 48 different ways of playing with women's bound feet [6]. As disturbing as foot binding was, perhaps equally disturbing is Li Han-Hsiang's eroticisation of the practice. In all four of his films described in this essay, there is at least one scene in which the camera lingers on Pan Jinlian's tiny bound feet while onlookers drool with pleasure. It's part of the books and worthwhile to include in the movies, I understand that -- but it's the weird way the camera lingers on the bound feet that unsettles me, as if I as an audience member was also expected to delight at the sight. Each film tries to outdo the other in this, and at last, the extreme is reached in THE AMOROUS LOTUS PAN when Pan Jinlian uses her bound feet to play with the nipples on her masculine lover's chest.

So sexy?

The progression of Li Han-Hsiang's adaptations of CHIN PIN MEI uncovers a serious structural problem with the work in terms of future adaptations: when it comes right down to it, it's porn. Earlier adaptations needed to tell the story creatively, to avoid either the graphic bloodshed of the WATER MARGINS version or the raw pornography of the CHIN PIN MEI. But as the years have progressed, barriers of what can be shown on screen have come down, so that now, everything is on the table. And the more nudity, the more sex, the more difficult it is to pay attention to any kind of meaningful storyline. This is why Shakespeare is rarely performed in the nude. You'll get full houses for it, sure, but will anyone remember any of the lines?

But if you don't take the route to more nudity, more sex, what else is there? Art?

Yes. Art and Sex, part four of this essay, coming next Monday.

[1] THE GOLDEN LOTUS is available on DVD and VCD from [Back]

[2] Quoted from The Plum in the Golden Vase Volume 2: The Rivals. [Back]

[3] THE TIGER KILLER is available on DVD and VCD from [Back]

[4] GOLDEN LOTUS: LOVE AND DESIRE is available on DVD and VCD from [Back]

[5] THE AMOROUS LOTUS PAN is available on DVD and VCD from [Back]

[6] There are plenty of resources on foot binding, NPR did a good radio summary of the issue and interview with one of the last surviving foot binders here. [Back]

Posted by Peter Nepstad on March 02, 2009.

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