I was recently knocked on my ass by the Japanese revenge tale Lady Snowblood when we watched it for the podcast. If it’s not the coolest film ever made, it’s at least one of the coolest-looking, translating the graphic imagery of its manga source material to the big screen with exquisite frame-by-frame composition. As much as I loved Lady Snowblood in isolation, though, it did zap some of my lingering appreciation for Kill Bill Vol. 1, which I would have cited as my favorite Tarantino film before seeing every one of its best ideas accomplished more beautifully & brutally in a film released four decades prior. Normally, I can tell what Tarantino is bringing to the table in his post-modern remixes of pre-existing genre films, but his take on Lady Snowblood‘s themes & imagery were such a 1:1 carbon copy that I lost a little respect for his best-looking, most entertaining work by comparing it to the text that directly inspired it. But maybe that retroactive disappointment was a little hasty; maybe I have more genre-history homework to do before brushing off Kill Bill entirely.
Released a year before Lady Snowblood, the wuxia actioner Intimate Confessions of a Chinese Courtesan touches on the same rape-revenge catharsis & snow-brawl imagery that make its Japanese equivalent so wonderfully vivid. It even does so while dabbling in (a less explicit version of) In the Realm of the Senses-style eroticism and subversive themes of lesbian desire that complicate the much more straightforward vengeance premise of Lady Snowblood. Intimate Confessions is a Shaw Brothers sexploitation picture about a lesbian madame who is both a fierce, misandrist defender of her brothel’s abducted women and one of their cruelest exploiters. It’s framed as a rape-revenge tale for the brothel’s latest abductee, and all of the dramatic tension is centered between the two women. Does our vengeful hero sincerely love the woman who holds her captive or is she using the madame’s romantic attraction as leverage for her true mission of killing all the men who’ve wronged her? It’s a complex dynamic, but it’s also a convenient excuse for badass swordfights & tantalizing shots of naked flesh.
Intimate Confessions alternates between feminism and exploitation just like its cruel madame, with plenty of genuine empathy & for-its-own-sake badassery to support either reading. It’s visually gorgeous, from the high-femme, flowing pink fabrics of its brothel setting to the stark red snow contrasts of its bloodspray finale. The brothel’s avenger is an awesome wuxia warrior, making no attempt to hide the fact that she’s murdering her abusers one by one (even using the whip that “broke her in” against them in her revenge). Her relationship with her abusive madame also alternates between shameless exploitation & provocative power dynamics, depending on whether the captor is licking the blood from her victim’s lashings or if the two women are fighting to the death in a private moment of sexual foreplay. There’s a nuance to their violent, semi-romantic relationship that helps save the film from feeling like a total male fantasy of faux-lesbian eroticism, but there’s certainly an aspect of eye-candy titillation that undercuts that drama.
Obviously, Lady Snowblood does not exist in a vacuum. Between Intimate Confessions, its 1984 remake Lust for Love of a Chinese Courtesan, and even more recent brothel-set, rise-to-power revenge tales like Gangubai Kathiawaidi, it’s clear the film is part of a larger continuum of genre pictures that Tarantino was playing with in Kill Bill. There are still specific images from Lady Snowblood that are copied directly over to Kill Bill without much interpretation or alteration, but they also have direct equivalents in this Shaw Brothers wuxia pic that predates it. I should probably watch more examples of this genre to better familiarize myself with its greatest, most idiosyncratic works, but I can’t say that I’m especially looking forward to watching a bunch of rape-revenge epics in rapid succession. So, for now, all I can say is this: Kill Bill Vol. 1 might be the best Tarantino film, but it’s at most only the third best example of its kind.