The Notorious Concubines is as odd an entry in Koji Wakamatsu‘s oeuvre as The Straight Story was an a-typical David Lynch film. Wakamatsu isn’t the most typical filmmaker and he’s often the discussion of heavy debates. To date, there hasn’t been a Wakamatsu review on Delirium Vault, but there was a forum topic on whether he was an excellent filmmaker or a misogynistic and sadistic bastard. Maybe Wakamatsu proves you can be both.
Some of Wakamatsu’s movies have odd titles: The Embryo Hunts In Secret or Go Go, Second Time Virgin, to name but two. In Embryo the male protagonist does little else than beat the female protagonist up. In fact, male violence is often shown in Wakamatsu’s movies. He did this (allegedly) to give a bleak portrait of Japanese society. Many of his films were extremely low budget: Embryo showed you only needed a man, a woman and a room. Wakamatsu was also quite prolific: he made almost 80 pictures in the 1960s and 70s.
The Notorious Concubines (or Kinpeibei) is different in that it was in colour, involved lots of actors and actresses and had a much bigger budget. It is also an odd one out in that Harry Novak bought the rights to the movie and had it dubbed for the American market. It is that version you can buy on Something Weird Video’s DVD release.
Chin Lien is a beautiful but unsatisfied wife. When her brother-in-law, Wu Song, doesn’t want her as his lover, she turns to an official with an equally large libido. Man Ching poisons her husband and so Chin Lien becomes his fifth wife. Wu Song’s anger outbursts lead him to prison, but when he’s released, he swears revenge on Chin Lien and Man Ching. And he’s not alone: he is now the leader of a small army, all intent on revenge.
If this sounds exciting, I must disappoint you: this is definitely not Wakamatsu’s best movie. Maybe this is because of the atrocious dubbing, which doesn’t seem eager to conceal the dubbed soundtrack was recorded in a studio. Everything sounds flat and the dialogue actors sound like they were forced to read their lines before they could go out for lunch.
The imagery looks much better, but then again, that was always one of Wakamatsu’s stronger points. The most typical Wakamatsu scene is when Man Ching’s sixth wife loses her child and the man takes revenge on all his women by brutally having sex with them. Afterwards the camera pans out and you see the room with the naked women lying on their stomachs. It is at the same time brutal and beautiful, vintage Wakamatsu.
Nevertheless, The Notorious Concubines isn’t that brutal compared to some of Wakamatsu’s movies. Or is that just because of the version we’re watching? Because yes, in the scene where soldiers are ‘playing’ with the women (again shot for far away) everytime the woman in the middle is not on her stomach, a blurry dot pops up onscreen. Yes, my friends, this version is slightly censored. Because after all, we may have seen a man whose ear was cut off and there’s nothing wrong with that, but heaven forbid we would’ve seen the sight of a vagina from twenty metres away. Societies have crumbled for less!
That Something Weird have released this in a dubbed version is awful, but if you’re somewhat familiar with Wakamatsu’s work, you’ll be eager to watch this anyhow: most of his work is either unavailable on DVD or only on Asian releases without English subtitles. It is also not the sort of movie you’ll be able to watch on television (with the exception of Italian viewers, who might have seen Violated Angels pop up somewhere in the middle of the night).
On the plus side, this being a SWV release after all, there are many other things you get for free to take away some of your pain. First and foremost, there’s another movie: Violated Paradise, a fake documentary by Marion Gering. This film tells the story of a young woman, who has jobs as a geisha, a variety entertainer and finally an ama (pearl diver). Oh, and she’ll marry the man of her dreams too. Ain’t life wonderful? Apparently, this was meant to tell us about the exotic life of oriental women, but it’s fairly boring and probably a little bit inaccurate (did you know Japanese women had no trouble with being nude in front of others?). An American narrator (Paulette Girard) translates this woman’s thoughts into English language, but there are a couple of scenes with a male voice-over. I still haven’t figured out why.
But no, that isn’t all: SWV has dug up a couple of featurettes with exotic women, enough to keep you in your chair for another hour. After which you can still watch a handful of trailers which they also managed to include on the disc.
In retrospect, it is easy to see why SWV was one of my first reasons I switched from video to DVD. The amount of extras this company has to offer is just flabbergasting. And even if the film you’ve bought the disc for isn’t as great as you’d expected chances are you’ll still get your money’s worth on the extras.
In the end, was this a good movie? Not really, even if you can still see it would’ve been better if presented in a better version, you’re still left unfulfilled. If it’s your first introduction to Wakamatsu’s work, it’s also a faux pas: better options are Ecstasy of the Angels (1972) or Go Go, Second Time Virgin (released in 1969, just like The Notorious Concubines and 7 other movies – told you he was prolific). Both were released on Region 1 by Image Entertainment and are now no longer available, but maybe eBay can help you out.
If only because a real movie collector should also get a dose of nihilistic degrading cinema. And – one shouldn’t forget – take a shower afterwards.
THE NOTORIOUS CONCUBINES (KINPEIBEI)
R: Koji Wakamatsu (Japan, 1969)
Released on DVD by Something Weird Video (Region 1)
Image: 2.35:1 (enhanced for 16×9 televisions)
Extras: bonus feature (Violated Paradise), several trailers, several featurettes