From the early silent film serial of the ‘10s and ‘20s, the exoticism of Asian cultures—in particular, Asian women—has played a relatively prominent role in action films, thrillers, and even fantasies. Films like Louis Feulliade’s Tih Minh (1918), Daughter of the Dragon (1931) with Anna May Wong, and Boris Karloff vehicle The Mask of Fu Manchu (1932), both depict the tropes like the “China doll” and the “dragon lady,” while also betraying systemic Hollywood racism, as many of these roles were played by white women in heavy makeup (such as Myrna Loy as Fu Manchu’s sadistic daughter Fah Lo See in The Mask of Fu Manchu). For example, Anna May Wong—generally considered the first Chinese American movie star—transported her career to Europe for a time, because under the Hollywood system, she was forced to play limited, stereotyped roles and wasn’t allowed to appear as a romantic lead in films with non-Asian protagonists.

Even early films with Asian settings or cultural influence—like Josef von Sternberg’s Shanghai Express (1932), William Wyler’s The Letter (1940), or Orson Welles The Lady from Shanghai (1947)—focus on white female characters (respectively Marlene Dietrich, Bette Davis, and Rita Hayworth) with Asian women relegated to the side lines. The “dragon lady” type—inspired by the comic Terry and the Pirates (1934-1973), racist stereotypes represented in popular media during WWII, and Wong’s villainous film roles—is a wholly western creation, but didn’t die out in the ‘50s; rather it became pervasive type to appear in pulp fiction and cult thrillers, even finding its way into porn. Two recent releases from cult label Vinegar Syndrome—China Girl (1975) and China & Silk (1983)—can be seen as a fascinating expression of this type in hardcore films.

Despite the fact that it was released in 1975, Paul Aratow’s China Girl is firmly part of the tradition of pulpy, Orientalist ‘80s action and fantasy films to come a decade later, like Big Trouble in Little China (1986) or The Golden Child (1986). Not to be confused with the David Bowie song or the 1987 Abel Ferrara film of the same name (which deals with Asian stereotypes in its own way), China Girl provides a parallel with the early Hollywood films centered on white female actresses either cast in place of or in roles dominant to Asian actresses—still a contemporary concern thanks to the recent furor over films like Doctor Strange (2016) or Ghost in the Shell (2017).

“The Oriental Mystique” is one of the film’s taglines and it is indeed set in a nebulous Chinese (or Chinese American) underworld in San Francisco. An international crime syndicate, the aptly named Dragon organization, is run by the villainous Chan (James Hong) and his second in command, Madame Woo (Pamela Yen), who are determined to get ahold of a biochemical secret. They kidnap a scientist and torture him with a serum that produces great pleasure—but coincidentally drives the victim completely insane. When they turn their attention to the missing link in their nefarious plan, chemist Teresa Hardgrave (Annette Haven), they find her capacity for pleasure far more than they’ve ever encountered before…

Perhaps unexpectedly, China Girl is an entertaining and effective thriller. Director Paul Aratow (Doctor Dracula, which he essentially co-directed with Al Adamson) pays actual attention to the espionage plot and deftly balanced hardcore and action sequences, including Eurospy characters like Mr. Smythe (Louis Ganapoler), out to buy the formula from the Dragons, and David Chase (Tom Douglass), a government agent ordered to protect and later rescue Hardgrave. Many of the scenes play out like a low budget Bond film—or even a hardcore version of something like Mario Bava’s Dr. Goldfoot and the Girl Bombs (1966). Like actual Bond film On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969), the villain’s weapon of choice is seduction and sex, and the shocking inclusion of the wonderful, prolific James Hong (most cult film fans will recognize him as Lo Pan from Big Trouble in Little China) adds a competence and weight to the plot. Though this isn’t nearly as over the top as something like Big Trouble in Little China, it includes A scene shot during a parade in Chinatown and Hardgrave is, hilariously, kidnapped at a Chinese restaurant; later secret lairs and erotic torture chambers pop up.

But despite the presence of some Asian actresses—such as Susie Song Li performing a brief striptease or the enjoyable Pamela Yen, who definitely holds her own as “dragon lady” Madame Woo—this is, above all, an Annette Haven vehicle. One of my favorite hardcore actresses, the gorgeous Haven is believable as a scientist and jack of all trades. She meets Agent Chase thanks to her obsession with gambling—which they naturally engage in by the fire, soon leading to a sex scene—and early in the film it’s declared that she doesn’t just spend all her time holed up in the lab: she’s also an Olympic skier (!!!). Haven commands the role with her usual grace and confidence and though there might be fewer hardcore scenes than expected, she unsurprisingly shines in all of them.

The Vinegar Syndrome disc includes a wonderful interview with her, where she describes working with the other actors (including the consummately professional Hong, apparently only on set for a day or two, though he does not appear in any of the hardcore sequences) and taking charge on some of the sex scenes. When Hardgrave is predictably given the “pleasure” serum—meant to inspire “Pleasures so intense it’s almost unbearable”—she comes out on top, first in a sex scene with four other women, and later, much more literally in a scene with three men. In the interview, Haven describes this sex scene—essentially the centerpiece of the film—where three men come at the same time, a carefully choreographed thing of beauty that was allegedly solely under her control; no mean feat considering that, according to the interview, the men in the scene were inexperienced in the porn industry.

In a lot of ways, China Girl represents my ideal for a hardcore thriller, particularly when it comes to its pulpy, Orientalist elements. There are some mild martial arts sequences, but lots of fun espionage scenes, and—of course—plenty of well-executed scenes of sexual “torture.” The film is, perhaps surprisingly, gorgeous both in terms of the 2K transfer (taken from the original negative) and the look of China Girl itself, from the lush animated opening sequence down to Haven’s brief but delicious scene with Yen’s Madame Woo, after the villainess is so taken by Hardgrave’s capacity for pleasure that she falls in love.

Steve Scott’s China & Silk (1983) is the more barebones of the two films, in the sense that it is predominantly made up of hardcore scenes and the plot is relatively sparse. The delightful Harry Reems (Deep Throat, Sex Wish) stars as Lieutenant Harry Parker, out to bust a drug smuggling ring run by the nefarious Lily Chang (Kristara Barrington aka China Lee); he has a personal motive as one of his close friends (Paul Thomas) was killed thanks to Chang. Cops Charlie Wells (Herschel Savage) and Mandy Walker (Ginger Lynn) are also on the case as undercover agents who have Chang’s racket under surveillance.

The film’s tagline — “A Hard Core Oriental Lady Who Exists Only For Smuggling, Murder, Money, and Sex” — is somewhat misleading as it promises more action and intrigue than the film actually delivers, though there is certainly plenty of sex. Ostensibly a hardcore thriller about drug trafficking, the majority of the sex scenes don’t really advance the plot, which is a shame as Reems looks like part perfectly and I would love to see him given more of these type of detective thriller scenes, rather than the one or two sparse scenes where it’s revealed that drugs are smuggled inside fortune cookies (because of course). But there are some solid sex scenes, including a hilarious moment where Reems is having sex in a car and his partner’s head bobs up and down out of the top of the sun roof.

There’s an effectively erotic sequence where Ginger Lynn is inside the surveillance van and gets aroused listening to her partner fuck Sandy (Cara Lott), one of Chang’s drug addicted associates who she has seduced into serving as a mule; Savage and Lott’s impromptu bathroom sex scene is one of the film’s highlights. But when he returns to the van and is quickly coerced into having sex with Lynn, their scene begins as a “romance,” where they admit their feelings for each other and Lynn’s characters asks Savage, “How do you feel about children?” He responds, “I love kids,” before fucking her in the van. Literally every sex scene in this film involves someone (or multiple someones) getting fingered, and there are a number of memorable appearances from other recognizable names: for example, Eric Edwards shows up as a customs agents and there’s even a cameo from Peter North in an orgy sequence which involves a well-coordinated ring of oral sex.

Reems is wonderfully watchable, as always, but he’s often overshadowed by the presence of the gleefully sadistic Kristara Barrington — who is simply given more to do as the film’s villain — at least until their concluding sex scene together, which serves as the film’s climax in more ways than one. Reems has a hilariously over-the-top orgasm, which includes giggling, appropriate as he gets the last laugh over on Chang. Regardless, she’s the reason to see the film. Like The Mask of Fu Manchu’s Fah Lo See, Chang is cruel, sadistic, and sex-obsessed, the stereotypical “dragon lady,” who runs her own criminal gang and seduces both men and women with aplomb.

In The Hypersexuality of Race: Performing Asian/American Women on Screen and Scene, Celine Shimizu writes,

In the early 1980s, the mixed race Asian American porn star Kristara Barrington, also known as China Lee, played roles both marked and unmarked by race in over 150 films. […] In films such as Oriental Jade (1987), China and Silk (1984), Samurai Dick (1984), and One Night in Bangkok (1985), she stages the Asian prostitute, or spoil of war, entangled with Americans during wartime relations in ways wherein her costumes and the settings contributed to the erotic grammar of the scenes. […] The narration emphasizes her enjoyment of sex as natural […] Barrington’s roles as a spoil of war argues for Asian women as the ultimate female deviant.”

As prostitute or madame in other films, and certainly as a crime lord in China & Silk, Barrington’s appearance is implicitly connected to the Vietnam War, such as in the film’s prologue sequence in what is allegedly Cambodia. This serves as back story for Harry Parker’s vengeance, which is on behalf of a war vet buddy, with whom he served in Vietnam. These elements make China & Silk seem older than it actually is and though it only came a year after Rambo (1982), it wouldn’t be difficult to think of it as a film from the late ‘70s.

Still, China & Silk looks great, thanks to a recent restoration, and includes two audio commentaries: the first from cinematographer (not on this film) Tom Howard, who worked with director Steve Scott and provides a lot of general insight about the porn industry in the early ‘80s; and the second from costar Herschel Savage and Bill Margold, which goes in depth on the many memorable personalities involved in the making of the film. Any of my reservations about it come primarily in comparison to the superior China Girl, but it’s well worth watching if you have any interest in hardcore thrillers. And seriously, so many people were fingered in the making of this film.