by Spank The Monkey
The stars and directors of Hong Kong cinema used to have a huge worldwide following, back in the day. But that day was probably prior to July 1st 1997. The return of the territory to Chinese control resulted in a cinematic brain drain, which would ultimately lead to Jet Li getting third billing and heaps of racist abuse in The Expendables. Meanwhile, those filmmakers who were left back in Hong Kong found themselves at a bit of a loss. Apart from the odd surprise like the Infernal Affairs series, very little of their work makes much of an impression outside Asia.
But in Spring 2011, a film came out whose performance was spectacular enough to make global headlines: a 3D production whose opening weekend effortlessly outgrossed that of Avatar. How did it do that? Well, a title like 3D Sex & Zen: Extreme Ecstasy definitely helps. The film had a reasonably solid theatrical run worldwide, including here in the UK, where it’s just been released on DVD in smudgy red/blue 3D. Western viewers may not realise, though, that this is merely the most recent entry in a Hong Kong movie franchise that’s been running for two decades now. In Asia, they’ve been wildly popular and successful: but here, the Sex & Zen movies are barely known outside of a small audience of grimly masturbating fanboys.
Michael Mak’s 1991 film Sex & Zen is based on a classic literary source – Li Yu’s The Carnal Praying Mat, a book that’s been “banned for 400 years!” if you believe the video sleeve. Its central character is Mei Yeung-Sheng (Lawrence Ng), a libertine who we first encounter having an argument with wise old man The Sack Monk about the nature of sex and pleasure. Will this argument come around again to haunt him in the final scene? Of course it will: but we get to watch Mei’s sexual misadventures on the way to his comeuppance.
In an attempt to settle down, Mei gets married to Huk-Yeung (Amy Yip): but their wedding night turns into a bit of a disaster, climaxing in Mei accidentally slicing open his tummy truncheon. (Be warned, penile mutilation is a major comic theme running through this franchise.) Before too long, Mei is mucking around with other women again, leaving Huk-Yeung alone in the house with only a series of oversized calligraphy brushes to keep her company. But he’s still not satisfied, and so takes the only course of action he can see open to him: he gets a doctor to replace his crimson crowbar with that of a horse. Once all the grafts have healed, Mei is able to throw himself into his sex life with even more abandon, and inevitably this is where things start to go horribly wrong for him.
What’s that? You were expecting to find this sexy or something, were you? Well, sorry about that. Chinese audiences loved Sex & Zen, and it racked up a cool twenty million HK dollars at the box office despite the most restrictive certificate the censors could throw at it. But the main pleasure that a Western viewer can get out of the film is trying to reverse engineer Chinese sexual attitudes out of it. And the first thing you notice is just how adolescent the approach to sex is. Size is everything: all too often, Mak is happy to point his camera at a large pair of bouncing breasts and just leave it there for ten seconds. The sex scenes aren’t in the least bit erotic – they’re shot with the aesthetics of a kung fu movie, where the outrageousness of the physical contortions depicted outweighs any attempt at real world biology, or even physics.
But there’s a more disturbing undercurrent going on here. Aside from the old fashioned gross-out laughs that come from having horse tadgers flying around all over the place, there’s all manner of penetration with foreign objects (one scene with a flute anticipates American Pie by eight years) and forced sex that gradually becomes consensual (all the S&Z films have suffered at the hands of the UK censor for this particular reason). And it leads to an unpleasant conclusion: Mei eventually realises the folly of his libidinous lifestyle, and all it takes to reveal this to him is the love of a good woman. When I say ‘love’, I mean ‘violent death’, unfortunately. But it’s depicted as the ultimate tragedy for him rather than her, which leaves a nasty taste in the mouth.
The success of the first Sex & Zen more or less assured a sequel, but it would be five years before Sex & Zen II hit the screens. There’s no real connection to the first film: we have a new director (Chin Man Kei), an almost entirely new cast, and a worrying name suddenly appearing in the producer credits. Wong Jing is one of the most notorious hacks in Hong Kong cinema: for the last three decades or so, he’s been using the hot cinematic trend of the day as the basis for a series of slapdash spoof movies with terrible jokes. Which is sort of what he’s done here, but in a good way.
“Many men want to be like Mei Yeung-Sheng,” claims the opening narration of Sex & Zen II. Um, really? Were they looking away from the screen during all the genital mutilation and violent death in the first film? That may be the case with Simon Khan (Elvis Tsui), a full-blown sex fiend with three wives and a spam javelin capable of castrating a bull in a penile tug of war. You don’t get to have a sex drive this powerful without also having issues with female sexuality, and they manifest themselves in a massively protective attitude towards his daughter Yau (Loretta Lee).
Yau has feminist leanings, and wants to become a scholar like the cute boys. So she adopts the least convincing male disguise in Hong Kong cinema’s long history of bad drag, backed up by a chastity belt with razor attachments. She eventually falls for fellow student Fa Tau, even when her chastity belt mangles his porridge gun and he has to get a robot one fitted. On her return to the family house, she finds it in turmoil: her retarded brother (their words, not mine) is getting married to the woman they call Mirage Lady (Shu Qi), an evil succubus who has stolen a magic book which will teach her “the secret sucking skills”.
For a film which at one point contains the unfortunate line “she’s been raped all over,” S&Z II contains an unholy amount of entertainment value. There’s no real attempt at pretending that what we’re watching is in any way erotic or titillating: instead, Wong and his collaborators have made something that looks like a Confessions film would if it had a body count. It has plenty of low comedy, a healthy sense of its own ridiculousness, and – crucially – it makes the female characters its protagonists, rather than mere eye candy. This results in a climax where Yau and Mirage Lady get into a lezz-off to the death in an attempt to out-succubus each other, during which Yau declares “I must make her come, to avenge father.” This line could only be more representative of the best aspects of Hong Kong cinema if both parties were flying around on wires at the time.
More Sex & Zen sequels followed: another one from Wong Jing in 1998, and a retrospectively-retitled ‘early years’ prequel made four years before the original. By the turn of the century, it was assumed that the series was spent. But that would be to ignore the Viagra-like powers of the third dimension, as in 2011 Sex & Zen: Extreme Ecstasy was hyped up by its opportunistic producers as “the world’s first 3D erotic movie”. I suspect the equally opportunistic producers of The Stewardesses would take issue with that, particularly as they made their film in 1969. And other people might take issue with the word ‘erotic’.
Extreme Ecstasy is somewhere between a remake and a (hawk, spit) reimagining: it doesn’t exactly follow the plot of the original Sex & Zen, but there are enough plot points in common to satisfy the purists. Once again, there’s a young libertine Wei (Hiro Hayama) who marries a woman in haste (Tie, played by Lan Yan) – only this time, it’s premature ejaculation that proves to be his downfall. One-Push Wei decides that a larger giggling pin will help him get over his problems, and a pair of cowboy surgeons fit him up with one from a passing donkey. Wei goes on to live a life of sexual excess on the premises of the dodgy Prince of Ning (Tony Ho): meanwhile, his neglected wife Tie is reduced to using the domestic staff for comfort, a decision which will have terrible consequences for everyone.
And I do mean terrible. The original film’s cheerful anything-goes perversity, with a side order of sexual violence, has its priorities completely reversed in this one. The sense of ridiculousness is still there – not for nothing is the last line of the film “fuck, what nonsense” – but there’s a much nastier edge to it all. For every amusing sequence where Wei parades his new bacon bazooka in a cheesy Kill Bill parody, there’s a bit where a minor character is raped to death (in a scene so gratuitous, it’s been completely removed from the UK release without any obvious impact to the story). Even the much-vaunted 3D is poorly used, with no real attempt at using it to enhance the sex scenes. And there’s a lazy will-this-do quality to the plotting which stops even the most outrageous twists in the tale from being amusing: two of the major baddies literally die from falling over in the final reel.
Granted, 3D Sex & Zen: Extreme Ecstasy is streets ahead of the other two films in technical terms – it’s glossily shot, and its subtitles are in something approaching grammatical English, even if they are a bit small. (They are small, it’s not just my eyesight.) But the beauty of its photography just makes its torture porn posturing even more unacceptable. If you have to go for one of these films above all the others, I’d suggest that it’s the least known of the three that comes off best – Sex & Zen II, where tragedy is repeated as farce. Hell, if a Confessions film had ended with Robin Askwith’s veiny bang stick exploding, I’d have enjoyed it. Wouldn’t you?
3D Sex & Zen: Extreme Ecstasy is now available on DVD from Metrodome in the UK, and on video-on-demand. Try yesasia.com for the other films in the series.
Spank The Monkey freely admits that he couldn’t have written an article containing nine separate references to tallywhackers without the help of Roger’s Profanisaurus.