Tuesday, 20 December 2011


The new 3D version of Sex & Zen quickly became Hong Kong's all-time biggest grossing (and I choose the word carefully) film, but I wonder if its makers ever happened to watch either of the Paul Morrisey 3D sex 'n horror films. If they had, they might have realised that 3D merely accentuates the unreal nature of soft-core porn, while adding nothing at all, and the western market has moved beyond Category III in Hong Kong. I wonder also if there is a real cultural divide in terms of sex and comedy, and I don't necessarily mean between China and Britain, but within Britain itself, because releasing this film on DVD just in time for Christmas week seems a very strange idea indeed. It is being billed as the first 3D erotic film, which ignores the 3D Stewardesses, a big hit when I was a boy, and the Warhol/Morrisey films, but had they watched any of those films they might have realised the extra dimension, so to speak, isn't necessary or sufficient. But as a stocking stuffer (and again, I choose the word carefully) I'm not so sure!

It was only 20 years ago that Sex and Zen (both films are adapted, extremely loosely, from the 17th century story The Carnal Prayer Mat) was made in 2D, starring Lawrence Ng and more famously Amy Yip (see poster below), but again, western viewers drawn by the allure of 'Category III', the Hong Kong version of 'adult' discovered a very soft core at the heart of a very strange sort of eroticism, one that didn't translate easily into our mores. Be warned as well, if you're a seeker of prurient interest: the version I saw in preview a few months ago suffered three minutes of cuts, which may improve it, or not, depending on your point of view.

There are a few funny moments in Sex and Zen, mostly revolving around the sexual naivete of our 'hero' Wei Yangshang, but otherwise the film is all too often nasty and violent, its sex primitive male fantasy, its attitude curiously prissy about what it shows and doesn't show, and, its mood, in the end, boring. In fact, the single most interesting thing about it is the way the sub-titles, in 3D, appear to be running in another dimension from the film itself, as if they were being projected onto a clear screen in front of each scene, an effect I began to find fascinating, like watching a child's toy theatre.

Wei is a conceited, not to say boring, scholar, who reacts to a recent outrage by the Prince of Ning by telling his master, the Monk Budai, that Ning will not be happy in the long run. Then Wei discovers love. But after marrying his true love, Tie Yuxiang, he fails to excite her. Given his boring lovelife when he goes to Ning's Pavilion of Ultimate Bliss, intending to make Ning pay for his blasphemy, he soon finds himself lost to carnal delights. The sexual-expert Ruizhu entices him but seems oddly unfulfilling, while the sadistic Dongmei frightens him, but seems to symbolise the dangers of the basic insecurity Wei is trying to assuage. But he still has problems, and eventually realises his tool is inordinately tiny. Since he has abandoned Tie, his true love eventually bows to family pressure and divorces him. Meanwhile, however, the Elder of Ultimate Bliss, a transsexual who has attained a sort of immortality by sucking the Zen ying yang out of his/her victims, has a solution for Wei, but the price will be high. He can get a new, larger penis, but in return he has to perform a service for the Prince...confused?

Hiro Hayami is a suitably dazed bozo of a hero, while Tony Ho sometimes seems like a Hong Kong version of Brian Blessed as the villain. The female roles are basically a dead-end street, but Leni Lan is appealling as the true love, and Saori Hara and Suou Yukiko compelling as Ruizhu and Dongmei, as far as the moaning allows. What might work for Suou, and for Vonnie Lui, is the contrast between their relatively innocent appearance, and their 'true' characters, but they don't get a huge chance to display it. Lui, from a girl band, is apparently known as 'Hong Kong's Sex Bomb' in Taiwan, which must be worth something at the Golden Globes (the very idea of a general release in the US is hilarious to entertain, especially as it has attracted virtually no attention in the UK).

The slapstick comedy is crude but effective, especially when Wei gets a donkey dick attached, literally, and a couple of times the intrigue around the Prince threatens to make the story compelling. There is even some well-done action (of the non-sexual variety) which is really the only time the 3D effects seem to add anything at all.

But those moments are all too few-- there are even a couple when the characters' pursuit of pleasure reveals its extreme cost, a sort of Sadian insight which seems strangely out of place. In the end, however, true happiness is revealed with an O. Henry twist, marital bliss is achieved only after the husband has been castrated and wife placed in an impregnable chastity belt. Oh the irony. Of course the young won't believe it, so you probably should not bother taking the kids to this one for Christmas in lieu of your local panto. But it does make a certain amount of sense, especially seeing as the 3D Sex and Zen is likely to put them off Sex and leave them praying for Zen.

3D SEX AND ZEN: EXTREME ECSTASY is on DVD (cinema release was in September)
directed by Christopher Sun screenplay by Mark Wu, Stephen Shiu, Stephen Shiu, Jr. photography: Jimmy Wong Hiro Hayama (Wei), Leni Lan (Tie), Tony Ho (Prince of Ning), Vonnie Lui (Elder of Ultimate Bliss), Saori Hara (Reizhu), Suou Yukiko (Dongmei)

No comments :