The title of director Bosco Lam's new film, Chinese Torture Chamber, misleads by omission, because the movie is at least as much about sex as violence. In fact it's not about much else: It's like a porn film, with an Updikean weaving of adulteries that gradually tighten into a net around the main figures. No one's quite a real character, but it doesn't matter, because the plot flies around like a balloon with the air being let out.
Chamber might have been a terrific porn flick if the director had wanted to titillate. The problem with almost all porn films is that they don't bother to set up story or character — those extraphysical factors that contribute to attraction. Lam and screenwriter Cheuk Ping have plenty of plot going, but they're aiming for farce more than arousal.
All the same, they're not opposed to a bit of arousal. Seldom do more than a few minutes pass without a beautiful body or two being put on candid display; and there's a cornucopia of graphically filmed sex. The film is far more explicit than, say, Last Tango in Paris, which was rated X. Yet it's not quite pornography, at least if we apply former Supreme Court Justice Byron White's infamous “limp dick test.” (Depicting an erect penis, for White, was crossing the line into porn — and liability.)
Women's bodies are constantly being shown in their entirety. But the naked men are always carefully arranged so that their genitals remain hidden from the camera's exuberant eye. This seems sexist, to say the least, but the whole film — the whole Chinese culture it depicts — is profoundly sexist. Women are chattel, property, sex toys; men decide everything.
The story (which unfolds in a mythic present) is told in flashback, at the trial of Yang (Lawrence Ng), a scholar, and his housekeeper, Little Cabbage (Yvonne Yung). They've been charged with adultery, and with the murder of Little Cabbage's husband. He died when his penis exploded as the result of a diabolical overdose of aphrodisiac.
“Trial” is not the best word to describe the proceeding, which is far removed from any parallel in Western law — even the O.J. trial. The magistrate, on his high bench, does little except stroke his Fu Manchu mustache and scream at the guards to pummel the defendants or subject them to some new torture. He will not be satisfied until they confess, at which point he will have them put to death.
The tortures are sensational: being dragged on one's knees across a bed of broken china; being strung up by one's thumbs and whipped; having one's tits squeezed in a vice; being forced to roll naked across a bed of nails in order to prove one's veracity to a tribunal with the power to overrule the evil magistrate.
All this would be unbearable if the victims — or anyone else in the movie — seemed truly human. But they don't, which reduces the horrific to the intermittently uncomfortable. The tit squeeze and thumb dangle are particularly unpleasant, and the two actors, whose performances are otherwise adequate, convey real agony in these sequences.
Luckily, the tortures don't last long: They always bleed back to sex. Yang and Little Cabbage flirt, but they never do the wild thing. It's Yang's wife who's the hormonal volcano at the center of the picture. Her adventures include an ongoing affair with the magistrate's son, Liu (Tommy Wong). When Little Cabbage happens upon the adulterous duo in flagrante delicto, Mrs. Yang sees her chance to protect her affair and get rid of a potential rival in one stroke. Little Cabbage is dismissed from her housekeeping job and married off to a man whose “dick is big as a donkey's,” according to another maid.
Yang might have protected her. But he's away on a business trip, which takes him through a forest where he sees a man and woman swinging through the trees, screwing all the way. It's like The Wizard of Oz meeting Debbie Does Dallas: dark bluish light, leaves blowing in a windstorm, wild treetop sex. Yang loves it.
The movie shows many other American or Western influences. Sex between Little Cabbage and her donkey man is always accompanied by the song from Ghost. (An odd echo.) The farcical espionage and subterfuge in Yang's home is like something from Get Smart, except Chinese and smutty. And the man who makes himself invisible by wearing a special article of clothing (and nothing else) sounds a chord from The Lord of the Rings, or Star Trek.
The movie as a whole is manic-depressive: It reflects these Occidental influences, often jokingly, but the director and screenwriter do not seem to have fully digested the material. The film zooms from one mood to the next without much emotional connection: It makes literal sense but lacks an intuitive coherence. The torture scenes, in particular, are jarringly gruesome, even when the victims are nothing more than human mannequins — they're an ugly reminder of an ancient human practice that persists to this day in our civilizations.
It's odd to see all this base behavior being carried out in settings lavishly appointed with red and green silk tapestries and posh pillows. Chinese civilization has been built up over many centuries, like a coral reef, but the characters of Chinese Torture Chamber appear to be entirely unaware of what's around them. They're like grown-up, Oriental versions of the wild teen-agers in Larry Clark's movie Kids: horny, violent bulls in a china shop. Though their robes are too long for convenient skateboarding, they're every bit as lascivious — and anxious to inflict hurt on their foes.
The exploding penis — which bursts during orgasm — finishes Chinese Torture Chamber with a nice bit of gleeful puerility. It's a joke for a drunken stag party, but at least it's a joke.
Chinese Torture Chamber opens Fri, Jan. 5, at the Roxie in