The Shaw Brothers go to Roger Corman’s newly-dug “women in prison” well
and come away with a bucket full of tedium.
Bamboo House of Dolls is the Shaw Brothers’ oft-mentioned attempt to cash in on the success of The Big Doll House and The Big Bird Cage, two films shot in the Philippines by director Jack Hill, starring Pam Grier, and produced by Roger Corman. Those two films kick-started the “women in prison” genre that flourished during the first half of the 1970s, transformed into “Naziploitation” in the latter half of the decade, then resurfaced for a brief but fecund period in the ’80s. The first wave, closely following the Corman template, was usually set in some sweaty, tropical climate, populated by women in tiny prison dresses, probably featured Vic Diaz as a leering prison warden, and delivered a fairly standard set of elements: a shower scene, a couple fights (at least one probably in the mud), torture, a lesbian guard, someone getting put in one of those metal hot boxes, a food fight for some reason, and then a big break-out at the end. It was a successful formula that kept the genre viable on the grindhouse and drive-in circuit for a long time, so when the Shaw Brothers decided to give it a go, they didn’t see a reason to monkey with the recipe. The only thing they did differently was throw a little more money into the production and, in a move that anticipated the grim “Nazi sex prison” variation that would spring up in the wake of Tinto Brass’ Salon Kitty, make the setting a prison camp during World War II. All other elements — excepting the presence of Vic Diaz (skeevy mustache duty goes, at it so often did, to Lo Lieh) but including the mind-numbing tedium — are intact.
So if the demands one has of a women in prison movie are the base deliverables, Bamboo House of Dolls accomplishes that, if little else. Otherwise, this is a tiresome slog of a film best characterized by its own seemingly-endless finale in which people just keep wandering around and around without accomplishing anything. Even the temptation of seeing Inframan‘s Princess Dragon Mom as a sadistic lesbian guard torturing Inframan‘s She-Demon isn’t enough to gloss over just how overlong and boring Bamboo House of Dolls manages to be. It is, of course, offensive and vulgar, so it has that going for it. But it’s also overlong by a good fifteen minutes, horribly padded, and at least as dull as it is tasteless. There simply is not much hidden gold to be discovered in this tale of a search for hidden gold.
Swedish star Birte Tove heads up an international cast of prisoners in a WWII Japanese prison camp. The cast also includes Lee Hye-Sook as Hong Yu Long, the wife of a slain resistance fighter and the sole surviving person who knows the location of a cache of gold the resistance hopes to use to buy weapons and fund guerilla operations against the occupying Japanese. Members of the resistance, including a spy working inside the camp, hope to spirit her to freedom, but before that can happen, there are showers to be taken, clothes-ripping fights to be fought, and many scenes of women cowering in corners while actors playing cartoonishly lascivious, lip-licking Japanese soldiers ogle their partially-nude bodies and make clutching boob-grabby hands. There will be evil laughs galore and “Tojo” mustaches aplenty as the Chinese actors tasked with playing Japanese soldiers (reflections of Hollywood in the 1940s, which was full of Jewish actors playing Nazis) dial it up past maximum. There’s not much arguing the nastiness of the Japanese army in China. Theirs is a litany of atrocities that hardly needs embellishment. But this is Bamboo House of Dolls, and it isn’t bothered by the fact that rendering its antagonists as such absurdly over-the-top villains does more to undercut the evil than augment it. This is not a message film about the cruelty of man anymore than would be the later Naziploitation films like The Gestapo’s Last Orgy. Bamboo House of Dolls is not so much an exploration of the banality of evil as it is an example of the banality of banality.
The first half of the film is front-loaded with the most salacious exploitation content and thus manages to be halfway entertaining for those inured tot he excesses of women in prison films. Around the midway point, the tastelessness sort of peters out in favor of a “who’s the spy and who’s the informant” cat-and-mouse game that delivers little in the way of thrills. There’s a prison break attempt during which our heroines prove themselves pretty bad at escaping (tip one: there should be way less yelling as you try to sneak past guards in the dark), which leads up, eventually, to a finale that is thrilling if you are really into watching people gingerly pick their way through rocks and across streams. Up until that point, however, the film has dutifully delivered its sleazy goods. There are frequent fights and nudity. However grotesque the film’s torture scenes become, things are never too grim to cut to a giggling splash fight with “zabba dabba dabba doo dee dappa” music. For as sadistic as this prison camp is meant to be, the inmates get away with a lot, including frequent violent outbursts against the leering guards. The camp is also very generous with water for bathing, which the women do frequently. The prison guards may be vile, violent rapists, but they’re never so driven to sexual frenzy that they can’t take time to arrange and light a bunch of romantic candles. When things threaten to get really boring, Terry Lau will show up to cackle, whip prisoners, and lick her lips. The most disturbing image Bamboo House of Dolls commits to screen is a close-up of Lo Lieh’s mouth while he’s kissing. The world does not need close-ups of Lo’s mouth during this, his prime “stringy mustache” phase. That man, a fantastic actor who was never less than 100% committed no matter how ludicrous the role, had an uncanny ability to be both handsome and ugly, sometimes in the same movie, and sometimes even from shot to shot.
You expect over-the-top commitment to the role from Lo Lieh, and of course that’s what he delivers. Birte Tove is the nominal lead of the film, and she acquits herself as well as can be expected given the slapdash nature of the production and the language barrier. But the real star is, to the surprise of no one familiar with her, Terry Lau Wai-Yue. Apart from the requisite dose of sleaze, Terry Lau is the only thing that makes Bamboo House of Dolls worth watching. She rips into the role of the cruel, perverse commandant with gusto, here casting sleepy-eyed looks of lust and there sneering and snarling at the top of the register while brandishing a strap-on dildo. She knows exactly what sort of performance is required for a film like Bamboo House of Dolls, and she delivers with extra on the side. Her inevitable comeuppance scene is the only justification for sitting through the film’s interminable, repetitive finale. Lau had debuted just a year earlier in the melodrama, The Two Faces of Love. Bamboo House of Dolls, only her second film, was rather a change of pace.
Lau would go on to appear in Killer Snakes, from the same director; the sleazy comedy Girl with the Long Hair, in which her Bamboo House of Dolls co-star Dana Tsen plays an suntan oiled-up seductress opposite Lau’s frustrated wife; and the Shaw Brothers’ star-studded sex comedy That’s Adultery, directed by Li Han-Hsiang, who directed opulent classics such as The Kingdom and the Beauty (1959), Enchanting Shadow (1960), and The Love Eterne (1963) before he became the studio’s go-to man for high-class (and occasionally lowbrow) erotic fare. But it was Lau’s role as the flamboyant villain Princess Dragon Mom (or, more accurately, Elzibub) in 1976’s outrageous scifi-martial arts blowout Super Infra-Man that made her an enduring cult film legend. Teamed once again with Dana Tsen, Terry Lau is a gleefully maniacal would-be world conqueror from the depths of inner Earth, pitted against costumed superhero Infra-man. She would go on to star in a number of outré films, both at Shaw Brothers (Oily Maniac, Devil Bride) and outside of the Shaw Studio (The Dragon Lives Again) before retiring from film in 1982.
Fans of the sleazier end of the exploitation spectrum would be better served by some of director Kuei Chih-hung’s other films. Under his guidance, the Shaws notched some of their most disgusting and controversial (usually because of animal mutilation) gross-out films, including: Killer Snakes, Spirit of the Raped, Hex, Hex vs. Witchcraft, Corpse Mania, and perhaps Kuei’s most infamous accomplishment, the one-two punch of Bewitched and its internationally-beloved sequel, Boxer’s Omen. At his best, Kuei Chih-hung brought a lunatic surrealism to his films, mixing gory special effects, grotesque gags (so much maggot-eating), grimy sleaze, and “anything goes” absurdism into a heady, nonsensical, unsettling, but certainly memorable disgusting frothy goo that is probably being spit into your face by a cackling wizard with a pervy mustache. Bamboo House of Dolls, despite the frequency with which it is mentioned in retrospectives of exploitation filmmaking, is not Kuei at his best, though he shows a certain knack for choreographing fight scenes that always end up with women falling out of their tops while thrusting their spread legs into the camera.
Surprisingly, the Shaws didn’t go to the “women in prison” well again. Sure, Bamboo House of Dolls is pretty terrible, but that never stopped them or any other studio before. It’s notable there’s no credit for the screenplay. It’s not like Bamboo House of Dolls is sleazier than other stuff the Shaws were producing around the same time, but still no one wanted to take credit for it. That or it’s just that no one bothered to write it, or at least write anything more than “Lo Lieh drives in a circle for five minutes while grimacing.” It hits all the women in prison beats — lesbian warden, inclusive multiculturalism, a food fight, torture, dresses that rip away from the breasts at the ripple of a slight breeze — and yet still it manages to be shockingly boring. Yes, it may be inconceivable that a movie boasting such wonders as Princess Dragon Mom’s strap-on of pain and pleasure could be so tedious, but tedium in the face of “sounds amazing on paper” tastelessness is perhaps the single most pervasive characteristic of the entire women in prison genre.