Dragon, an international criminal organization based in Hong Kong, is transitioning from dealing in narcotics too dealing in espionage. The first order of business is to obtain the secret formula for a memory altering chemical developed by a team of scientists for the United States government. Mr. Chan (James Hong), a master of torture techniques, has employed Madame Woo (Pamela Yen) to extract the formula from the scientists via a new deadly method that uses sexual pleasure rather than pain to drive the subject so insane that they divulge all of their secrets. However when the time comes for Olympic skier, molecular biologist and backgammon champion Dr. Hardgrave (Annette Haven) to undergo this new diabolical treatment things don’t go as planned. Can secret agent David Chase (Tom Douglass) get to Dr. Hardgrave in time before Mr. Chan resorts to more painful methods of truth extraction?
China Girl (1975), as evident from the description above, takes itself seriously as both a spy/thriller and as an erotic spectacle. Director Paul Aratow was just as comfortable making pornography as he was with grindhouse fair and it shows. The few scenes of martial arts action and spy mischief are staged and photographed with some panache by Aratow. Yet it’s still always clear that the spy movie premise of China Girl exists to support the erotic fantasies.
Details from the James Bond inspired element of China Girl motivate the spectacles in which Annette Haven is the center. For instance the attempts of the bad guys to bring Dr. Hardgrave so much pleasure that she goes mad becomes a means to get Annette Haven to do a group sex scene with three men. The plot twist that Dr. Hardgrave has an insurmountable capacity for carnal delights likewise allows the filmmakers to imagine a myriad of sex scenes for Miss Haven to enact.
Fortunately China Girl is not as racist as the title would suggest. There’s an element of jingoism to be sure, but nothing more offensive than one might find in a Roger Moore Bond picture. The title is actually an attempt to exploit the popularity of the movie Chinatown (1975) while referring to the Pamela Yen character Madame Woo. Pamela Yen, as one may have surmised, is not the star of China Girl though; Annette Haven is.
China Girl comes early in Haven’s filmography and is one of her first lead roles. Unlike the sex performers of today Annette Haven actually can act and has a real screen presence that gives her dramatic scenes agency. But China Girl remains one of Haven’s lesser known roles, overshadowed by her work in such classics as Public Affairs (1983) and Dracula Sucks (1978), which is a shame because in more ways than one she is the best part of the film. In fact Brian De Palma originally considered Haven for the Melanie Griffith role in his film Body Double (1984) based solely on her abilities as both a dramatic and a sex performer.
China Girl is classic porn chic. China Girl, as well as other movies of its ilk, provide more than one form of entertainment and function, on a technical level, cinematically. Pornography of this kind is as much a genre staple of exploitation movies as say the rape/revenge picture, the creature feature, or the Blaxploitation flick. The boutique home video label Vinegar Syndrome has been a major advocate for the critical re-evaluation of vintage adult films like China Girl. These are legitimate cinematic works and should be addressed as such.