14/05/2018

A Chinese Torture Chamber Story - Category III

Thoughts On: A Chinese Torture Chamber Story (滿清十大酷刑, 1994)

A brief look at Hong Kong exploitation movies.


Censorship, it goes almost without saying, has a huge impact on film industries and is a major component and effecting element of film history. One of censorship's most infamous byproducts is the exploitation film genre. In America the exploitation film arose with the decline of the production codes around the early 60s. This coincided with a huge change in the industry and saw the rise of a 'New Hollywood'. Along with this came films that were, in a way, transgressive (which isn't to assign them inherent virtue). There was also an awful lot of pornography. In the 60s, censorship was challenged in countless places all over the world due to a liberal wave that swept over much of the West. This liberal uprising, known in cinema as the New Wave, was not restricted to Europe and America, however. Japan and Iran are just two examples of non-Western nations that experienced significant New Waves between the 50s and 70s. Nor is the New Wave just a product of the 50s and 60s. Whilst many industries experienced this wave around the mid-20th century, other regions, such as Hong Kong, had later waves in the 80s and 90s whilst second and alternative waves propagated elsewhere. All of the national cinemas that went through this wave saw censorship confronted and/or were a product of already changing laws.

Reasons for change around censorship are often political. As a result they can be responses to shifts in a country's ideological facade, as seems to partially be the case in America around the late 50s, or they can be the result of changing regimes, as was the case with an industry like Spain's after the death of Franco. Sometimes, however, there are just holes in censorship practices - as was the case with Britain in the 70s and 80s. In the UK, video content wasn't monitored by law when the technology first came about. This saw the rise of the 'video nasties'.

In Hong Kong, film censorship laws changed in the late 80s with the introduction of the motion picture rating system. Before 1988, films were made with restrictions, and so, a little like in America cinema under the production codes, films either abided by rules or were cut apart or banned altogether. The rules and regulations of film production weren't particularly strict during the 80s, however. Since the 70s, censorship had been quite relaxed. This would have played a part in the rise of Hong Kong cinema between the 70s and 90s, a time in which the wuxia (martial hero movies) came to prominence and saw the birth of modern action movies - the most famous starring Jackie Chan. Alongside popular action cinema came erotic movies, termed 'fengyue'. Across the 70s and 80s, fengyue films merged with the mainstream and mixed with action cinema, costume dramas and comedies. But, it was after 1988 that this these erotic films intensified, becoming more absurd and violent.

The introduction of a rating system often has a major impact on the kinds of films that a nation can produce. It will usually see a country move away from a system of "do's and don't's", of "suitable for all or suitable for none" (China is an example of a country that still uses this system), and allow for a wider body of films to be made as long as they are rated. Most systems have 5 or 6 categories. In America, there is G (general audiences; suitable for all), PG (parental guidance advised; suitable for most children), PG-13 (parental guidance strongly advised; not suitable for young children), R (restricted; has to be seen with a parent under if under 17) and NC-17 (have to be over 17). Most countries follow a similar rating system. In the UK, for example, there is U, PG, 12, 12A, 15, 18. In France there is U, -12, -16, -18. More generally, rating systems designate restrictions to young children (0-6), children (7-11), younger teenagers (11-14), teenagers (15-17), and then adults (18+). In Hong Kong, things are just a little different. There are 3 categories; Category I means suitable for all; Category II means not suitable for children; and Category III means adults only. Category II is split into two sub-categories; IIA is not for young children; IIB is not for young children or young people. It is this rating system that was instituted in 1988 and it saw Hong Kong move away from a relaxed system of "available to all or available to none".

Taking advantage of this new system were a group of filmmakers who set out to make Category III films for adults only. And so this is where the violent and erotic fengyue movies found their place. One of the earliest examples of a Category III movie that found success is Sex and Zen from 1991. This cult classic signified a place in the mainstream for Category III films and so would foreshadow a flooding of the market with violent and erotic films with somewhere between a third and half of all movies made between the early and mid-90s being Category III.

A Chinese Torture Chamber is just one example of a Category III film, but it is one of the most infamous. It is a court room drama of sorts, one that sees a female servant of a prominent household tortured and made to confess to the crime of killing her husband. As she is tortured, we are given her backstory, which is is rife with deception, lies, rape, hedonism and fantasy. What separates this film from the exploitation films that most people will be familiar with is its sense of humour, its quality and lack of horror (which isn't to say it is not violent). So, whilst the most famous American exploitation films, the likes of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, are very clearly low-budget, gratuitous and maybe ironic, A Chinese Torture Chamber, whilst it does not look and feel like a Wong Kar-wai film, is particularly well-made on top of being ridiculously satirical and crass.

One of the most notable scenes in the film concerns two martial heroes who battle among the tree tops before the man attempts to give the woman the best sex she's ever had. And so ensues a violent clobbering of genitalia as the two hop across tree branches thinner than your pinky finger that culminates with the man rotating in the woman like a spinning top as she lies flat. And, of course, it's the best she's had... in a while at least.

This scene represents the absurdly satirical height of the movie as its funniest sequence. More generally, however, this tries to formulate some kind of commentary on corruption and conservative views on sexuality, but doesn't at all hold water. So, much like most exploitation films, this is about the experience of narrative as opposed to a coherent story meant to do much more than affect and entertain in a highly ridiculous manner. So, for anyone who is interested in exploitation films, or just the shadier sides of film history, I'd certainly recommend A Chinese Torture Chamber Story now you know what you're getting into. But, if you've seen the film already, what are your thoughts?


P.S. If you want to know a little more about Category III movies, this essay, may be of interest. I found it to be energised by ideology in a depreciative manner and, whilst its use is Freud is fascinating, I don't feel it paints a full picture. Nonetheless, the information on the Hong Kong Category III movies is far deeper than that you will find here.







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