The Bamboo House of Dolls

It would be my guess that “The Bamboo House of Dolls” is not regular late night TV fare in Japan. Not that it's an entirely negative portrayal of the Japanese. When they are not whipping scantily clad women, shooting them in cold blood, forcing them to become sex slaves, making them walk barefoot on broken glass, having them clean boots with their tongues and torturing them with electrodes, they just like to mellow out, drink sake and sing cheerful songs. Not unlike many of us after a hard day’s work at our chosen profession. What might of course really annoy those late night viewers is the fact that all these sadistic Japanese soldiers are played by Chinese actors!
This film has of course gained legendary notoriety since Shaw released it in 1973 as one of the great early Hong Kong exploitation films  – you name a basic element of exploitation in film and this movie probably has it somewhere along the way. Thirty years though tends to mellow a movie and much of what was perhaps shocking back then doesn’t necessarily elicit the same reaction today. Violence and sex in films have become so much more explicit and graphic in the intervening time that this almost has a nostalgic feel to it. Ah, you think to yourself, this was when exploitation was trashy and titillating rather than simply trying to constantly push the boundaries of the nausea factor. Ten minutes of nearly any Takashi Miike film has more stomach churning scenes than does “The House of Bamboo Dolls”. At the same time, this film is great fun with a near non-stop parade of melodrama, sex, nudity, action and brutality.
Perhaps one of the most popular exploitation genres through the 1970’s, 80’s and into the 90’s was the “Women in Prison” (WIP) flick. A huge number of the WIP films were made in the United States, Europe and Asia during this period and they gratuitously played the grind house circuits and the drive ins or later on went the straight to video route. A sub-genre of this was the prison being replaced by a concentration camp, which allowed the film to plunge even more deeply into the muck without being bounded at all by realism or legalities. There are certain rituals in which nearly every WIP has to conform – a shower scene, a catfight in which clothes get torn off, a food fight, a snitch, torture, skimpy prison uniforms, a cruel female warden with lesbian inclinations and finally of course the big jail break. This has all of those and so much more in this deliciously overripe, overstuffed sausage of a film.
The Japanese have invaded China and are viciously dispensing their form of justice. They storm into a hospital looking for a downed American pilot and start shooting people until he gives himself up. The Japanese soldier (Chan Shen) sneers and shoots him dead on the spot. They round up the women and take them to a camp – but they are very picky about this apparently as all the women inmates are quite attractive and look almost chic in their matching ensemble of a short blue skirt, blue panties and blue scarves. We see a lot of those panties in this film. Not surprisingly, the camp’s officers – Wong Hap as the Commander, Chan Shen and Li Man Lang – enjoy taking their choice of a female from time to time. As does the female security head Mako played by the delightfully evil Lau Wai Yue (a.k.a. Terry Liu) who likes to reach into her treasure chest and take out a strap on dildo and go to town when the mood strikes her. She particularly likes nubile white flesh and one particular victim responds with surprised delight.
A racially mixed group of prisoners band together to help each other withstand the atrocities and assist in bathing one another as well with buckets of water (to as goofy a choice of music as one can imagine!). Three of them are white nurses played by (as best as I can figure) Birte Tove, Roske Rosen and Niki Wane. Tove was a Danish actress who appeared in such Euro-trash films as “Swedish Fly Girls”, “Christa” and “Between the Sheets” as well as a few other Hong Kong films – “Sexy Girls of Denmark” (1973) and “Mini-Skirt Gang” (1974). She is a lovely winsome blonde and is the main heroine of the film - Shaw clearly had international ambitions with this film. On the Chinese side there is Hu Lizhu, a blind girl that wants to escape with them, Wang Xia, a tough kung fu pistol sucking wildcat and the quiet Hong (Lee Hoi Suk).
Hong knows the whereabouts of stolen gold that the Chinese guerilla fighters need to buy weapons with and so they conspire to break her and her friends out of the camp. One of the girls though may well be a traitor. The Japanese know of the gold too and a deadly cat and mouse game begins. Lo Lieh is a Chinese translator working for the Japanese, but he is not all that he appears to be and has a splendid opportunity to wield a razor sharp sword through a horde of Japanese. Lo also gets to seduce Birte in the strangest moment in the film as they decide to make love surrounded by candles and easy listening music as if they had forgotten what movie they were in. Just where did all those candles come from. No, this isn’t “Swedish Fly Girls”, Birte.
The man who put this frenzied exploitation package together is Gui Zihong who gained a reputation as one of the edgier and grittier directors with such in your face fare as this one, Delinquent, The Killer Snakes and Brother Cheng during the seventies. Though he began his directing career with some more conventional films (Love Song Over the Sea, A Time for Love and the female action film, The Lady Professional) he soon morphed into the exploitation field and showed not only an ability to display hard hitting lurid scenes, but to do them with real style. In the 80’s he switched gears a bit by moving more into horror/supernatural films – Hex, Hex vs. Witchcraft, Curse of Evil and The Boxer’s Omen among others. In this one, he brings incredible energy to the film and keeps it moving like a man running for his life. It is a rare minute in which something is not happening from the opening frame to the last one – it is as if Gui feels he will lose his audience unless he keeps hitting them with something – and that was fine by me.

My rating for this film: 8.0

Here are some links to WIP film information: