The latest Asian movie releases and reissues. This week, the hugely popular Sex and Zen series is rebooted in over-the-top multi-dimensional style in 3D Sex and Zen: Extreme Ecstasy.
The Sex and Zen series was one of the most successful Hong Kong film franchises of the 1990s, popularising the adult Category III rating and giving mainstream HK audiences an unprecedented amount of jiggling softcore action. All three movies were loosely based on the ancient Chinese erotic novel The Carnal Prayer Mat, and mixed bawdy comedy, romantic melodrama, copious nudity with traditional Chinese philosophy to crowd-pleasing effect.
The third and final film in the original series was released back in 1998; 13 years later 3D Sex and Zen: Extreme Ecstasy revives the franchise, with the added bonus of 3D to lure audiences in. This is as much a remake of the first film as it is a sequel (and none of the films were really connected anyway) – as in Michael Mak’s 1991 original, it focuses on a young man’s attempts to become a world-class lover. In this case it’s cocky academic Yangsheng (Hiro Hayama), who marries beautiful Yuxiang (Leni Nam), expecting a lifetime of wedded bliss and non-stop rampant nookie. Unfortunately, Yangsheng is a bit of a flop in the bedroom, so visits the legendary ‘Pavilion of Ultimate Bliss’, a carnal temple run by the ruthless Prince of Ning and populated by dozens of voluptuous, sex-mad beauties. There our young hero begins to learn the ways of the flesh, but tragedy, violence and a donkey cock transplant await round the corner…
Considering the modest budget he had to play with, former commercials director Christopher Sun really does put every penny on screen, resulting in a film that certainly doesn’t look like a cheap cash-in of a once-popular franchise. The movie is entirely set-bound, but the colours, design and costumes are impressive and more than compensate for any deficiencies in the storyline or acting. Of course, it’s the sex and nudity that’s the big draw here, but although Extreme Ecstasy has both in spades, for the most part there’s something cheerfully innocent about the presentation of the adult material. In this age of taboo-busting porn/art crossovers like Enter the Void, Nine Songs or Antichrist, it’s amusing to observe that Sun and his performers don’t even attempt to make the sex look real – but it’s energetic, noisy and funny, and all the better for it.
The plot is a mess, but although it’s hard to care whether Yangsheng and Yuxiang will solve their marital differences, there are some entertaining sequences along the way. The cock-transplant scene – performed by a pair of bungling doctors who inadvertently squash a giant horse dick and feed Yangsheng’s severed knob to a hungry dog is a bizarre, eye-watering hoot, while Vonnie Liu makes for a sexy and sinister femme fatale, especially as she speaks with a deep, demonic voice and possesses a strange serpentine phallus. She’s probably the best performer in the mix – the rest range from the hammy but enthusiastic (Tony Ho, playing the increasingly evil Prince of Ning) to the hopelessly wooden (everyone else). But hey, the whole cast get into the ‘swing’ of things, and it’s hard to be churlish about a film in which main acting requirement is to bounce around naked and moan into the camera.
Unfortunately, things take a nasty turn in the final quarter, as the Prince of Ning reveals his true evil colours and sets about torturing and humiliating his foes. Which means a couple of pretty unsavoury rape scenes that are tonally at odds with the saucy fun earlier on; it might make narrative sense that the Prince would use sexual violence to get his way, but it doesn’t make it any more pleasant to watch.
Nevertheless, Hong Kong audiences made 3D Sex and Zen one of the most successful erotic films of all time, with an opening day take that outdid the record set by Avatar and stories of mainland Chinese coming to the island to see a film that has no chance of being released back home. The film may be way too long, shabbily acted, dramatically useless and occasionally offensive, but like all good trash, it knows exactly what its audience wants – and delivers.