Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Sinful Confession, Li Han Hsiang, 1974

I've seen only two of Li Han Hsiang's films from his 1970s "hunchback of shawdom" (Stephen Teo) phase so far. Both are episodic softcore farces filmed in elaborate studio sets. Both establish some sort of ordering principle (in Sinful Confession: a game of Mahjong and the presence of Michael Hui in each episode) in the beginning just to let themselves desintegrate completely over the course of the film. Both are vile and ugly, but while Facets of Love is vile and ugly, period, Sinful Confession somehow manages to turn vileness and uglyness into building blocks for something else - which is still vile and ugly, but also interesting and sometimes even awesome.

Especially the first story: Michael Hui plays a newspaper journalist spying with a telescope on a neighboring apartment building / love hotel, but he's mainly just there as a random anchoring point for a perverted, sweeping, freewheeling, devouring gaze. At one point, one of the naked women caught in the fangs of this gaze gets attacked by a masked man - cut to the director and crew of a porno shoot directing both the man and the woman - another cut to gawking men behind a false mirror also watching the scene. Cinema as a closed circuit, the studio as a boiling pot of sexualized madness. Filmmaking, voyeurism and sexual assault flow into one another until they become undistinguishable.

The second story - about a doctor being trapped by a sneaky vamp - is relatively straightforward and feels like something out of a rather dull commedia sexy. But the routines are somewhat elevated by the rather inspired interplay between Hui and Renee Pai (a young, statuesque actress discovered by Li who committed suicide before finishing another film).

The last half hour descends into utter chaos. A bunch of storylines thrown together without any coherence whatsoever - only to end with a cameo by the director himself, who scams Hui out of a meal and makes fun of smug film critics dismissing his movies - a scene Stephen Teo in a great take on Lis carreer identifies as a "manifestation of the plot that is Li Han Hsiang's life vis-a-vis the cinema. It is a statement of faithlessness (though not of hopelessness) that, alas, recognizes the cinema's propensity for philistinism and commercialism".

In other words: Li Han Hsiang's cinema is all about the power of the false. Maybe in a way his masterpieces of the early 60ies are also films about falseness. So his later work might not be a negation, but rather some sort of insentification of his early work: falseness is spreading, taking over form itself. Sinful Confession, especially its last third, is bad filmmaking at almost any measure - but the force of its messy vulgarity can't be denied.

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