Sex and Zen (Hong Kong, 1991) / 3D Sex and Zen: Extreme Ecstasy (Hong Kong, 2010)

The Chinese writer Li Yu wrote one of the classics of erotic literature, The Carnal Prayer Mat, in 1657 during the Qing Dynasty. A ribald comedy about a seemingly pious scholar whose main goals in life are to be the most renowned poet in the world and to marry the most beautiful woman in the land, Li Yu’s novel poked fun at the sacred cows of Buddhism and Confucianism all the while reveling in the sexual debauchery of the main character in the book’s four chapters. Fast-forward 334 years later to 1991 when Golden Harvest studios release Sex and Zen, a Category III Hong Kong film which garnered no prestigious awards, but raked in about 19 million HK dollars during its theatrical run. Needless to say, the film”s profitability made it one of the posterboys for Adult Hong Kong cinema and gave birth to a whole batch of cheap imitations and sequels-in-name only.

In the new millennium, technology might have improved but the old adage that “sex sells” still rings true and in 2010, 3D Sex and Zen: Extreme Ecstasy was released to the Hong Kong public. Four days after it opened in theaters, it surpassed 13 million Hong Kong dollars, breaking the opening weekend record set by James Cameron’s bloated epics Titanic (1997) and Avatar (2009). To most readers this rattling off of numbers may seem trivial, but it is important factor in putting the film into proper context.  When discussing an erotic masterwork like the Sex and Zen series, what fuels producers, actors, directors and distributors isn’t the critical admiration of a few cineastes but cash, moolah, dollars, pesos, and, most importantly, the Chinese yuan.

By the sheer fact of its subject matter, the film was automatically banned in Mainland Chinese theaters. To combat this, the film’s producers released several versions of the film to appease local censors. Then, in an attempt to attract an audience of both men and women, theaters in Hong Kong held “Ladies Only” screenings. Capitalizing on the popularity of 3-D, the production company One Dollar Productions married cinema’s newest (though the technology has existed since the 1950’s) technological gimmick with the oldest popular attraction known to man, beautiful naked women in various states of ecstasy. All these steps prove that although the film was heralded as the “return of the Category III film” it was not made to cater to a niche market. No, 3D Sex and Zen seems to have been marketed as erotic entertainment for the mainstream or porno chic, a term coined to describe a sexually relaxed era in American cinema when films like Deep Throat (1972) was de rigueur viewing, all the while attempting to hang onto its cult/underground reputation.

Does the film bridge the gap between cult and mainstream? Well…there’s no refuting that the film’s 110 minute runtime is well-stocked with all manner of sexual activity. First time director Christopher Suen along with veteran cinematographer Jimmy Wong have no illusions about their film’s main attraction and they dutifully keep the camera constantly focused on the bevy of naked female flesh on parade. Although story has never been the big draw to filmed erotic, 3D Sex and Zen has a rather sincere and moralistic story in-between the sex and violence (more about the latter later).

At its core, the film is about a young arrogant scholar by the name of Wei Yangsheng, played by Hiro Hayama, who steals his best friend’s fiance, but his inability to perform in the bedroom leads him to seek assistance from Quanlao Shi online casino’s (Tony Ho), a bon vivant who resides in the ancient equivalent of a man-cave, well stocked with beautiful girls, priceless works of art, and an accessory one can’t do without, a penis fountain. Ensconced in this cave, the clueless Yangsheng abandons his wife and becomes a slave to his desires until eventually he is humiliated by Quanlao in front of his harem for not being endowed with the “proper tools” to please a woman. Utterly dejected, he turns to the only person who can help him, The Elder Bliss (Vonnie Lui), a person not confined by the restrictions of gender labels (nudge nudge, wink wink), who gives him only one option, a penis transplant with the donor for his new appendage being that of a horse. Yangsheng’s problems aren’t solved after the procedure though and his new found confidence leads to a string of debacles, each more gruesome and tragic than the last, till he is reunited with his wife again. Maybe not as a whole man but a wiser one and he finally learns to “be in love without making love.”

Ironically, however, this sweet sentiment is reached after several reels of softcore, oftentimes misogynistic, girl-on-girl, girl-on-pommel horse and vigorous Kama Sutra-esque sexual activity on the screen. To the point that it became, in my opinion, a great detriment to the film. The first time watching a bare chested actress dry-humping another actor was exciting.  The second pic of and Selena was going to celebrate the New Year in Mexico, but Selenium flew home, because they quarreled. time is amusing, but the sixth time around you eventually start paying more attention to the set design and start noticing just how much a $3.5 million budget can pay for. Of course, what breaks the tedium is the There are more than 150 top-notch games. comedy which doesn’t always rely on cheap raunch, but rather cheeky humor, reminiscent of classic Benny Hill or Monty Python, as stoic looking mountains become towering phalluses and banal looking wagon wheels become playthings for the endowed. Ultimately it’s this type of humor which keeps the film fresh and raises it above the fray of late night “Skinemax” productions.

The only major misstep within the film is the sudden shift during the middle of the second act from sex comedy to darkly violent picture. In all likelihood, this shift is meant to attract fans of torture porn franchises like the Hostel series and also as an emotional shortcut to get audiences to sympathize with the protagonist as he endures one brutal humiliation after another. However, these scenes fails to elicit any reaction other than a grimace as mainly female characters get brutally beaten, degraded, and victimized. Maybe it”s because the original Sex and Zen, directed by Michael Mak, had a smaller budget and thus had to rely on the actors and only the bare essentials of a camera and a good editor that it not only holds up as an erotic masterwork, but is also far more daring, thematically speaking, than Suen’s version.

In Michael Mak’s film the wayward scholar Mei Yeung-Sheng, played by Lawrence Ng, is just as arrogant as the Yangsheng character in 3D Sex and Zen, but Yangsheng is let off the hook in the end for all his misogynistic behavior due to a last minute act of repentance after witnessing the torture of his wife. Mei Yeung-Sheng starts out as a bumbling sex-starved fool, and after getting his “new appendage” becomes lost in a sea of S&M, bestiality, and all manner of sexual activity. He is not redeemed in the end, though. In fact, Mak’s version of The Carnal Prayer Mat condemns the foolish scholar and relegates him to a lonely fate as a blind, toothless monk.

Also, Mak’s treatment of the sex scenes, although simple, are far more effective than the jiggling breasts and computer generated penises in Suen’s film. Beyond just visual efficiency, Mak’s film doesn’t demonize sex the way 3D Sex and Zen does. Mei Yeung-Sheng and his wife Huk-Yeung (Amy Yip) although emotionally absent in each other’s lives have no qualms about enjoying sex and expressing their desire for it, unlike the idealized version of love in Suen’s film which involves two people madly in love with each other but never being able to consummate their love.

Though both films are labeled Category III (roughly, a hard “R” rating), ultimately it is Michael Mak’s Sex and Zen which is the better film, even 20 years later and 20 years from now, it will still be remembered fondly. With that said, 3D Sex and Zen: Extreme Ecstasy has premiered in North America as of August 2011, opening on 10 screens and has made $42,000, none of which were from IMAX who refused to allow the film to be shown at their theaters.   The initial figures for the film indicate that adult fare may just have enough of a foothold to guarantee more risque films hitting American shores soon.

* For more Sex and Zen goodies please check out This Week in Sleaze 3 – Sex and Zen, East Screen / West Screen #69 ;-P – I”m Too Sexy For Your 3D, and Jared King”s coverage of the film and its North American Premiere (plus a food review).