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Sex And Zen: Extreme Ecstasy 3D (2011)
Director: Christopher Sun

review by Jonathan McCalmont

There has always been a trace of unreality about erotica. The characters in these kinds of works are always far more attractive than real people and the carnal potential of their lives seems to far outstrip anything that you might care to describe as 'real'. This combination of wish-fulfilment and heightened reality makes the pornographic seem faintly fantastical, a similarity that has been recognised by artists since antiquity when the Greek god Pan was always depicted as a creature with two goat horns and one decidedly more human one.

Today, the kinship between the erotic and the fantastical drives the literary genre known as paranormal romance. At the Christian end of the genre, Stephenie Meyer's Twilight series transforms Bram Stoker's vampires into perfectly sexless boyfriends while, at the more pornographic end of the genre; Laurel K. Hamilton's Anita Blake novels have their protagonist shagging everything from vampires to were-leopards.

One work of world literature that explores both the transgressive and comic possibilities of this kinship is the 17th century Chinese novel The Carnal Prayer Mat by Li Yu. First adapted for the screen in 1991 by Michael Mak under the title Sex And Zen, The Carnal Prayer Mat recently returned to our cinemas having received a lavish 3D makeover. Sadly, while Christopher Sun's Sex And Zen: Extreme Ecstasy features moments of admirable oddness, the film's problematic tone and tendency to veer into both homophobia and misogyny render its charms decidedly flaccid.

Wei Yangsheng (Hayama Go) is a handsome but arrogant scholar specialising in the history of art. When a local princeling invades a temple, slaughters the priests and steals the priceless works of art it contains, he happily lends his name to a letter condemning the prince's actions despite not particularly caring about the temple. The scholar's short-sighted arrogance is also evident when he steals his best friend's arranged bride, the beautiful Tie Yuxiang (Lan Yan). However, while the scholar and his wife are utterly devoted to one another, the scholar finds himself unable to pleasure his wife because of his microscopic penis. Hoping to find a way around the problem, the scholar leaves his wife and disappears into a bizarre sexual underworld that is ruled by the degenerate Prince of Ning (Tony Ho), the same princeling that the scholar arrogantly condemned at the beginning of the film.

Having pledged his loyalty to the Prince and proved his usefulness in discerning the true value of works of art, the scholar begins a series of sexual encounters that become more and more lavish until he eventually decides to have his tiny penis replaced with that of a donkey. Properly equipped, the scholar switches his allegiance to the Elder of Bliss (Vonnie Lui), an inter-sexual vampire who can lift cartwheels with her immense prehensile cock. This change of loyalties allows the scholar to find the sexual fulfilment that had thus-far eluded him but these fleeting moments of happiness bear a terrible cost as the Prince of Ning suddenly decides to take revenge upon the scholar by ruining not only his life but also that of his wife.

Right from the off, Sex And Zen 3D suffers from translation problems as British culture tends not to cope too well with attempts to combine sex with comedy. While most British people will happily acknowledge the fact that sex - as an activity - can sometimes be very funny, attempts to capture that comedy on screen generally do not fare too well, as ridicule was traditionally one of the means through which matters pertaining to sexuality was repressed. For example, while a case can be made for seeing the Carry On films as agents of social change, one could just as easily say that they helped to reinforce taboos about the human body by presenting sex as a laughing matter. 3D Sex And Zen's tendency to move between (rather un-stimulating) eroticism and childish humour is not only unsettling, it is also fiercely reminiscent of the jarring tonal shifts common to the kind of campy Bavarian softcore porn films that were made in the 1960s and 1970s and screened on British cable TV in the early-to-mid 1990s. Sex And Zen 3D ultimately fails as a film because its jokes are unfunny and its erotic content is nothing more than boobies and thrusting bottoms, but the constant shifting between these two registers makes for an experience which, I suspect; would translate better for people from cultures where laughter was not used to drain sex of its power.

Once you look past the film's basic problems, there are nonetheless a few interesting ideas at work. Most notable is the adept use of 3D to create both depth of field illusions and moments where nipples seem to take your eyes out, and prehensile CGI cocks wave around in front of you. Quite how well this translates to DVD is unclear to me as the review copy I received did not have the 3D glasses promised with the commercial version of the DVD. In truth, I do not even know whether the 3D glasses shipped with the DVD actually allow you to make the most of the 3D effects. Either way, the CGI and 3D effects seem relatively well constructed for a supposedly erotic film and the oddness of these effects lend the film a quirky charm that gels nicely with a plot featuring donkey dong transplants, vampiric inter-sexuals and the take-home message that sex really isn't all that important compared to love and companionship.

3D aside, the film's production values are relatively high despite the film occasionally looking like a silly pastiche of Yimou Zhang's classic wuxia pictures Hero (2002), and House Of Flying Daggers (2004). However, while the film's visuals are unexpectedly pleasant, the film's acting is universally terrible apart from Vonnie Lui, whose Elder of Bliss is every inch (fnar fnar) the femme fatale.

Taken together, these various elements might have made for a film with the potential for trashy cult status. Unfortunately, despite the transgressive reputation of the original work and the transgressive nature of many works of paranormal romance, the only values that Sex And Zen 3D manages to trouble are those of tolerance and feminism, as the film devotes much of its runtime to jokes about men having to touch willies before devolving into a hideous exercise in misogynistic sadism in which women are tortured with all kinds of bizarre devices. Given that the message of the story is that sex is really not all that important in the grand scheme of things, I suspect that these torture sequences may originally have had some thematic purpose (namely, once you start looking for kinky sex, you don't know where that quest will take you) but their presence in a film that is supposed to both funny and sexy is difficult to justify on either an aesthetic or an intellectual level.

The thing that ultimately makes 3D Sex And Zen: Extreme Ecstasy so disappointing is the fact that there are numerous films that do manage to combine sex with both humour and moral transgression. If you want that kind of thing, look no further than the works of Russ Meyer and Herschell Gordon Lewis. Sexist, puerile and most decidedly of their time, these films nonetheless possess an enduring charm and value that somehow seems to elude the eerily misogynistic Sex And Zen 3D.

Sex and Zen: Extreme Ecstasy

3D Sex and Zen poster

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