The 2011 3D remake of the Category III classic Sex and Zen and a surprise worldwide box office hit…
Given the popularity of 3D technology, it was always inevitable that sooner or later someone would use it for full-on exploitation cinema – and so it’s hats off to Hong Kong for getting there early in 2011, with 3D Sex and Zen: Extreme Ecstasy, proudly branded as being the world’s first 3D erotic film. The marketing tactic certainly proved successful, not only propelling the film to great success at the Chinese box office, but also whipping up hype around the globe and marking it as one of the very few Category III rated local productions to win an international theatrical release. Directed by Christopher Sun, who went on to helm Imprisoned: Survival Guide for Rich and Prodigal and to produce the dismal Donnie Yen Iceman vehicles, the film is essentially a remake of the 1991 original, with producer Stephen Shiu back on board for another adaptation of the Chinese Qing Dynasty erotic classic The Carnal Prayer Mat. The film features a pan-Asian cast giving their all in the name of art, including Mainland actress Lan Yan, Vonnie Lui (Chase our Love) and Tony Ho (Revenge: A Love Story) from Hong Kong, and Hayama Hiro (Break Up Club) plus Japanese AV idols Hara Saori and Suo Yukiko.
The plot plays fairly close to the original, with Hayama Hiro as upright young scholar Wei Yangsheng, who falls in love with and marries the equally decent Tie Yuxiang (Lan Yan). Sadly, he turns out to be somewhat lacking when it comes to his performances in the bedroom, mainly due to his unfortunately small manhood. Nevertheless, while investigating the villainous Prince Ning’s (Tony Ho) ‘Pavilion of Extreme Ecstasy’ he finds himself being drawn into a world of wild sexual pleasures. After a meeting with the Elder of Bliss (Vonnie Lui), he decides to have a donkey penis transplanted in place of his own, and uses his newfound virility to make the most of his basest desires. Unfortunately for the scholar, Prince Ning has his own plans for him and his wife, and he soon discovers that his lustful ways have their own shocking price.
Sex and Zen: Extreme Ecstasy is a film which really does deliver pretty much everything its lurid ad campaign promises. Christopher Sun and Stephen Shiu certainly serve up a non-stop avalanche of carnal action, with most of the female and male cast naked for a high percentage of the running time, often going for full-on frontal nudity. The sex scenes come thick and fast and are as explicit as would be expected given the Category III rating, and cover an imaginatively wide range of positions and situations. The good looking stars really do give their all, and the film definitely packs in enough adult entertainment to mark it as being one for the more open-minded of viewers.
Oddly, although the sex sequences are generally well handled, the film never seems to be aiming for any real sensuality, mainly since it also packs in a great deal of far out and wacky moments at the same time. Indeed, it does get spectacularly gross and tasteless in places, with some pretty extreme gags, most notably during an extended comical sequence involving the attempted penis transplant. Similarly, a fair few of the couplings are clearly played for humour or weirdness, including a crazed flying sex scene and pretty much every shot which involves the bizarre Elder of Bliss, a scheming, all-powerful hermaphrodite. Thankfully, the film is very funny, at least for those untroubled by notions of good taste, and whilst the comedy does kind of undermine it being taken seriously as a piece of erotica, it certainly makes it all the more enjoyable and boisterously tacky and ensures that despite a running time of over 2 hours in Director’s Cut form, it ensures that things never get dull.
Perhaps more likely to startle some viewers is the film’s shifting tone, which like many similarly themed Category III outings from the heyday of the genre switches between jolly romping and genuinely nasty violence. This is very apparent during the last hour or so, which sees much of the sex turn disturbingly rough, and throws in a series of gruesome rape and torture scenes. The film as a whole does have moments of quite shocking misogyny and nihilism sprinkled throughout, and this may prove off-putting for some, at times requiring quite a strong constitution to stomach.
Another surprise is just how good the film looks – far from being a cheap piece of soft pornography, it boasts gorgeous production values which are comparable to those of other more respectable affairs. The sets are amusingly designed and even occasionally impressive, and the costumes are pleasingly lavish – at least when the cast are wearing them. Although obviously on the small screen the 3D doesn’t count for so an alluring gimmick, even in its 2D version the film still at least makes for some laughs, with a staggering number and variety of objects being thrown at the screen, including a truly memorable scene involving the flying severed appendage of a horse, which surely marks the best cinematic use to date of the technology. Aside from some shoddy computer blood during the martial arts heavy final act, most of the CGI work is pretty decent, and on the whole, adds to the overall sense of decadent fun.
Although it’s easy enough to dismiss Sex and Zen: Extreme Ecstasy as a cynical outing based around a clever marketing campaign, the film definitely never short changes its audience, and packs in more than enough sex and silliness to entertain fans or the curious. On a par with other similar productions of the period such as The Forbidden Legend: Sex & Chopsticks, the film is very much deserving of its success and cult status, and as much as anything it’s great to see a big-budget Category III romp having done so well both at home and indeed around the world.