A review of the world's first 3D Chinese-language erotic film, we believe, is simply extraneous- after all, you've probably already decided on this basis alone whether or not you're going to watch this movie (and if you have, we strongly urge you to catch it in 3D). And why not- since besides action and horror, erotica is probably the genre that would clearly benefit from the additional dimension, especially seeing as how we already talk about them boobs very much dimensionally.
It makes perfect sense then that producer Stephen Shiu would decide to reboot his infamous Category III- series 'Sex and Zen' for a new audience, the story inspired in part once again by the ancient Chinese text 'The Carnal Prayer Mat'. Of course, story is probably the least of the reasons why their audience has opted to see this film, so Shiu, who co-wrote the screenplay with his son Stephen Shiu Jr and Mark Yu, keeps it simple, in fact perhaps a little too simplistic.
The protagonist here is a young Ming Dynasty scholar Wei Yangsheng (Hiro Hayamo) who has just gotten married with the beautiful Tie Yuxiang (Leni Lan). The couple have one problem though- Wei is just not very good in bed, and goes frigid all too quickly. His quest to better their sex life leads him to the Pavilion of Ultimate Bliss, a carnal pleasuredome reigned over by the Prince of Ning (Tony Ho in an effectively hammy performance) living a life of hedonism and unrestrained sexual pleasure.
Armed with an excuse, Shiu and director Christopher Sun trot out familiar Japanese AV stars Saori Hara and Yukiko Suo, as well as Hong Kong's very own busty beauty and wet dream fantasy Vonnie Lui. Hara and Suo are among two of the temptresses at the Pavilion, while Lui plays The Elder of Bliss, an androgynous being who looks stunning but speaks with the voice of an old man. If you're a fan of Lui, the bad news is that she doesn't go topless- nevertheless, that disappointment will probably be short-lived seeing Hara and Suo do so for the most part when on screen.
Indeed, one can pretty much guess how the rest of the girls were auditioned for this film, but we wouldn't expect less from a film like this. There is a generous amount of nudity in the film, restricted however to boobs, bums and the brief shots of Yangsheng's incompetent penis. Love-making is also copious, and most if not all of the scenes set in the Pavilion have either nudity or love-making or both in the background at least. Sun's film doesn't forget its purpose to titillate, and so at least on a visceral level, you can be assured that you will leave satisfied.
While it remains remarkably consistent in the skin department, the film is much less so in its tone. At the start, it adopts the same playful attitude as the original film, with Yangsheng's unaccomplished sex life as well as his desperate attempts to improve his endowment played up for exaggerated laughs. Especially hilarious is Yangsheng's visit to two quack village doctors (one of them played by Stephen Chow regular Tin Kai-Man) for a penis replacement operation, their wordplay and subsequent bungling of the organ utterly ridiculous but also side- splittingly funny.
Things however take a much darker tone when Yangsheng's devastated wife gets raped and both Prince Ning as well as Yangsheng's buddy Lin (Tenky Tin) reveal a nasty conspiracy to teach him a lesson for his arrogant ways. Depictions of rape and sexual violence are already toned down in the 'international version' that we are getting here in Singapore, but these later scenes, especially an extended climax which plays out like torture porn, will quite likely discomfort some audiences. Sun plays these up supposedly to strengthen the moral at the end about love and fidelity, but one wishes that he had exercised more restraint.
Restraint is also in short shrift when it comes to the use of 3D as a gimmick, and the additional dimension is primarily used in the film's action scenes to hurl some weapon or another at the audience. Granted that the film industry in Asia is just waking up to the possibilities of 3D, therefore such gimmicks are probably to be expected while the technology is still being experimented. The stereoscopy also does enhance the curves and depth of the nude female cast, but these effects tend to be much subtler.
But of course, gimmick though it may be, there's no denying that it does work after all to add to the luridness. 'Sex and Zen' was never meant to be high art in the first place, offering visceral pleasures in a rambunctious way. There will be those who will criticise it for objectifying the female sex (which any soft-core porn film is certainly guilty of to some extent), but then they are probably not the audience this film is meant for. For everyone else keen to savour in the display of flesh, this is just the carnal pleasure you'll get.
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