Shirley Yu headlines a movie that retools the Chinese classic, Dream Of The Red Chamber, giving it a sexual slant that might be more truthful than meets the eye. Stephen Tan reviews.


If the Jia family in the Chinese classic, Dream Of The Red Chamber, is seen as a microcosm of Chinese society, then, according to Dreams Of Eroticism (1977), it is nothing more than a hive of sexual activity and licentious behaviour.

Old Master Zhen discovers a pouch (with a naked couple embroidered on the front) in his garden and initiates a search into its background. Though lorded by the Matriarch, the everyday running of the household is left to Xifeng (Shirley Yu), who searches the servants' quarters. Discovering a pair of hand-made shoes, she gets the maid, Siqi, to tell her story, after the maid is stripped and then beaten into submission. Siqi reveals her love for her cousin, Pan Youan, who had sneaked into the garden. The two had sex in the moonlight but were discovered by another servant. Tied up in the basement while waiting to be further punished, Siqi is rescued by a servant and goes home but commits suicide when her mother objects to her relationship with her cousin.


Using the formulaic anthology format, in the second story, Third You Sister (Jennifer Liu Ya-ying) is in love with opera actor Liu Xianglian (Ku Kwun-chung, who probably during the '70s, must be one of the most hard-working supporting actors in the Shaw stable). At the same time, Master Rong is trying to win her affections. At a dinner, Third You Sister first behaves seductively towards Rong before letting her anger and displeasure show. However word gets round that Third You Sister isn't as virtuous as she seems.

The third story is a flashback to the death of Rong's wife, Madam Qin. Old Master Zhen visits his daughter-in-law, Madam Qin, while she is taking a bath. Lusting after her, he rapes Qin. The incident proves too much for Qin who hangs herself. While trying to find out the truth about his wife's death, Rong approaches Xifeng (in spite of his bereavement he is not above having a little sex on the side) and the two are spotted by Rong's brother, Rui (Tien Ching). The fourth story involves Rui and his infatuation with Xifeng.

For reasons that are probably worth a feature on their own, this film is made by a collective of Shaw directors and writers (who remain anonymous) and it features more nudity and sex than expected. Figuratively, characters recall the sex they had (Siqi with her cousin); Liu Xianglian gets a vision of having sex with Third You Sister; Rong dreams of having sex in a bathtub with Third You Sister; and Rui hallucinates having sex with Xifeng.

If the sex and nudity in the dreamtime is revealing, what happens in real time is equally so. A preview of what is to come happens when Siqi, who couldn't sleep one night, sees two female servants making love and then, in another room, another servant masturbating with a cucumber. Of course, her peeping action is a direct comment on the voyeuristic aspect of cinema; and erotic cinema to boot but it is also a comment that in feudal China (and modern China too), there is no such thing as privacy. And servants are stripped and beaten with the slightest provocation.


Later, one other servant is seen masturbating with a kettle. When Liu Xianglian comes to visit, he sees two servant girls having sex; passes by a couple having sex on a boat and even a couple having sex on a swing. Then, there is Master Zhen and his tai qi sex (which bona fide tai qi master would teach those thrusting movements?) which he practises on an acquiescent maid. The most physical sex is when Madam Qin is raped on a table (which requires an agile waist and a strong back). The scene recalls the Jessica Lange sex scene in The Postman Always Rings Twice though it is doubtful Lange could be as acrobatic! Or that intimation of oral sex which one character calls "dragonfly skims the surface of water."

As a top draw, Shirley Yu gets to show off her assets (though it's well into the movie). But let's not quibble over that as the other actresses, for instance, the firm-bodied Jennifer Liu, help to enliven the proceedings by first disrobing themselves and then having sex with the next male actor. If this sounds like porn, it is but because it is a Shaw movie, it is slightly less brazen.

If Pasolini had a ribald version of The Canterbury Tales, why not Shaw with this popular Chinese classic? After all, most readers would have liked to imagine the seamier side of life in this uptight, traditional feudal family.

Note: The Dreams Of Eroticism DVD is not available in $ingapore.

+ + + + +

Click here for other Asian Values DVD Reviews:

Legends Of Lust
Amorous Woman Of Tang Dynasty
Hong Kong Hong Kong
Kiss Of Death
Crazy Sex
Forbidden Tales Of Two Cities
The Call Girls

For more... email with the message, "Put me on your mailing list."