The third in our trilogy of the earliest full-length movies is "Women Skeletons," (Hongfen Kulou 红粉骷髅), an indie produced by the Xinya (New Asia) Film Company, with processing by the Commercial Press Motion Picture Division. It is notable in Chinese movie history for two "firsts": it was the first Chinese detective movie, as well as the first Chinese movie adapted from a novel. What that literary source actually was is a mystery in itself; some Chinese sources say it was an American detective novel, while others say it was French. In either case, the title of the original was translated by Chinese sources as "The Insurance Gang Sisters." (I have so far been unable to identify the source specifically, but given its considerable sexual content I would guess it might more likely be French than American. Readers?). Chinese film historians list it as the first martial arts movie, and a 1957 interview with writer/director Guan Haifeng seems to confirm this.
A note about the Chinese title: "Hongfen Kulou" literally means "Rouge Skeletons." "Rouge" in Chinese is a metonymy for women, similar in usage to the old term "skirts" in American English. The skeleton image appeared often in cartoon illustrations of that era to indicate something menacing, and someone in the presence of a skeleton was considered in great peril. So a 1950s Hollywood-style schlock title for this film might be something like "Deadly Dames."
Hongfen Kulou (1922) 红粉骷髅 (Women Skeletons)
aka: Shi Zimei 十姊妹 (The Ten Sisters)
Xinya (New Asia), filmed by the Commercial Press Motion Picture Section. B&W. Silent. 10 reels.
Premiered May 10, 1922 at the Embassy Theater in Shanghai.
Direction and Screenplay: Guan Haifeng.
Cinematography: Liao Enshou.
Cast: Shen Zhengfeng (Huang Juying), Chai Xiaoyong (Bao Zongying), Lu Meiying (Pan Juanniang), Yin Xianfu (Huang Qian), Hong Jingling (drug dealer), Wang Guilin (chief thug).
A girl student, Huang Juying, is returning home on vacation from school when she is struck by a car. In the hospital, she and her young attending physician Bao Zongying gradually fall in love, and when he proposes marriage she is impressed with his sincerity. After Juying is released from the hospital, she makes a date to meet Zongying in a park. He shows up early, and while waiting alone is approached by two very attractive young women who lure the young doctor away and seduce him. The women are part of a criminal organization called the Insurance Gang, run by the crooked head of an insurance company. He employs a gang of prostitutes called the Ten Sisters to prowl the city’s clubs and parks where men look for women, luring these men with easy sex and then robbing them.
["Hi sailor, new in town?" Two of the gang's 'Ten Sisters' spot a potential mark]
When the gang learns that Bao Zongying has no money, the leaders devise an alternate scheme to take out a large insurance policy on his life and then gradually poison him for the indemnity. The young doctor is so entranced by his carousals with the Ten Sisters he has no idea of the danger. Meanwhile, Juying and her brother organize Bao’s hospital co-workers for a wide-scale search. Following the clues, they at last pinpoint the insurance company as being the gang’s headquarters. In disguise, Juying and her brother infiltrate the gang, rescue Bao, and then help the police round up the gang and bring their criminal activities to a halt. The reunited lovers make plans to marry.
Production and release were well-timed: in the early 1920s, detective movies from the West were very popular with Chinese moviegoers, especially young people, both for their heroic characters and their sensuality. In adapting the foreign novel for the screen, writer-director Guan Haifeng, a veteran of the stage who had broken into cinema by assisting legendary First Generation director Zhang Shichuan on "Victims of Opium" transplanted the story to China. The movie featured both horror and suspense (the doctor’s fate was in doubt almost to the end, and the interior scenes set in the gang’s headquarters were shot in a gothic old mansion, complete with stone walls and staircases, secret passages, hidden rooms, a dungeon, etc.). In addition, the film made much use of sex in showing how the male victims were lured and ensnared by the gang.
A newer fashion in China at the time was the form-fitting dress with high collar and slit skirt known as the "qipao" in Mandarin and the “cheongsam” in Cantonese, and when the female characters in this film wore this dress it touched off a fashion craze in Shanghai. "Women Skeletons" was a box-office success in Shanghai, Tianjin, Beijing and other Chinese cities, and was later exhibited in other Asian countries, including Japan and what is now Vietnam.