Right now people are excited to talk about 3D Sex and Zen: Extreme Ecstasy, but years from now? By then, the film will likely be regarded for what it really is: a marketing coup that excited an entire populace into shelling out money for a mediocre film. 3D Sex and Zen: Extreme Ecstasy is supposedly based on the classic Qing Dynasty novel “The Carnal Prayer Mat,” but it’s really a film based on its own marketing pitch. That is, it’s all about its stated financial goals and its plans to achieve them, and it succeeds at those things confidently and unabashedly. Grosses have been big, buzz has been bigger, and even women's groups and grandmas have donned 3D glasses to get a gander at this erotic cinema milestone. Hands down, 3D Sex and Zen is a winner. As a product.
As a movie? “Mediocre” was the word used and it’s a good fit. 3D Sex and Zen opens with the dastardly Prince of Ning (Tony Ho) feeling up a statue of the Goddess Guanyin and pissing off the locals. This tweaking of religion sets up Ning as the film’s prime villain, and pays off later with a controversial scene that borders on nihilism. Beyond that, however, the film is pretty average for costume softcore fare. Scholar Wei Zhangsheng (Hiro Hayama) scoffs at the Prince of Ning's misbehavior, but engages in his own when he steals the comely Tie Yuxiang (Leni Lan) to be his bride from an unfortunate friend. For Zhangsheng and Yuxiang, it's love at first sight, but Zhangsheng is lightning-fast in bed, and possesses a member the size of a small child's. That's not enough to satisfy Yuxiang nor Zhangsheng, who desires more carnal pleasure than giggle-inducing quickies.
Zhangsheng's initiation into the sexual elite comes from the Prince of Ning, who's just as nasty and haughty in person as he's rumored to be. Zhangsheng initially wants to report the Prince's crappy ways to the government but quickly becomes his art advisor and starts hanging out at the Prince's Pavilion of Ultimate Bliss, an elaborate paper-mache cave set housing dozens of nubile beauties. It's the girls who make Zhangsheng drop his supposed principles, as he abandons Tei to romp with Ruizhi (AV star Saori Hara), who uses acupuncture to increase Zhangsheng's stamina. However, no needles or nudity will be able to solve Zhangsheng's size problem, so it's off to a couple of quack doctors who promise to replace Zhangsheng's penis with one from a lesser animal. 3-D hijinks ensue.
If the above plot sounds familiar, that's because it is. The original Sex and Zen was about a scholar (Lawrence Ng) who embraced the carnal pleasures by dropping his busty wife (Amy Yip) for sexual misadventures and a horse penis transplant. However, that storyline did relate to the “Zen” in the title, with the scholar’s carnal exploits coming as a conscious pursuit that leads to a karmic end. 3D Sex and Zen only drops hints of Zen, and instead goes with a half-baked revenge storyline with an overarching true love theme. The filmmakers have their cake and eat it too by trying to sell a true love tale while offering up penis transplants and orgies. It’s a little dishonest, but so was the original Sex and Zen, which supposed that a karmic end makes up for ninety minutes of graphic titillation. We’ll have to concede this hypocrisy to the filmmakers because if we don’t, we really have nothing to talk about.
Sadly, this concession doesn’t excuse 3D Sex and Zen’s other debits, such as unimaginative ideas, routine softcore and uninspired 3D effects. The unexciting softcore is unfortunate as it’s just standard bumping and grinding with little of the creativity or zaniness that characterized the nineties genre classics. Some of the visual gags and initial sex scenes are fun, and the girls are game and good-looking (besides Saori Hara, AV star Yukiko Suo shows off her goods). However, nothing here really excites beyond the most obvious hormonal level. What’s worse, the film lifts its most notable sex scenes straight from the original Sex and Zen, but stages them without the energy or filmmaking wit that one would hope for.
The 3D is also disappointing. The filmmakers use standard gimmicks; knives, bullets, water and CG effects get the 3D treatment, but only once does anything resembling a phallus get shoved into audience faces. Not that this is what we should want, but at least poking audience eyeballs with phallic stuff shows a willingness to use 3D to offend. Also, the showy 3D lessens the impact of the film’s ballyhooed sex and nudity. Watching flesh wriggle about in stereoscopic 3D isn’t as compelling as advertised, as it’s usually non-sexy stuff like tables, windows, flower petals, etc. that are used to show depth during the sex scenes. Nothing here seems real or close enough to touch – and really, isn’t that the whole point of a 3D erotic film? That it takes the titillation to a whole new level?
Ultimately, 3D Sex and Zen is more talk than action, and never delivers on its promise. The hype has been successful though, with audiences rushing in simply to see what the hoopla is about. They also showed up for the original Sex and Zen, but at least that film delivered to crossover audiences as a bawdy erotic comedy. The downer ending may have been a tad off-putting, but it’s far less upsetting than what happens in 3D Sex and Zen, which melds a first half of genial softcore silliness with a second half of torture porn-style violence. Granted, this type of “sex comedy” is also a viable genre (see A Chinese Torture Chamber Story for an example), but it’s mostly for fringe local fans or western fans who enjoy extreme cinema. Your typical crossover audience won’t enjoy what goes in the second half of 3D Sex and Zen and why should they? Rape, graphic torture, etc. – it’s unpleasant stuff.
Stripping away the disappointment that massive hype inevitably leads to, 3D Sex and Zen is a decent genre fix. The film has hot girls, some surprising dirty laughs, and a decent-sized budget. The acting isn’t much to write home about, but there are standouts. Leads Hiro Hayama and Leni Lan are serviceable if not spectacular. Lan gets extra credit for the more uncomfortable scenes, and the filmmakers should be thanked simply for getting new and interesting faces to join this genre. The AV stars are frisky and fun, and Tony Ho goes for an epic overacting performance as the perpetually-sneering Prince of Ning. Also of note is chesty Hong Kong model Vonnie Lui, who plays the Elder of Bliss, a character who is quite obviously more than meets the eye. Sadly, she rarely shows the goods unlike her Japanese or Taiwanese counterparts in the film. So much for local representation.
In the end, 3D Sex and Zen: Extreme Ecstasy lives up to the words “sex” and “extreme”, but not “Zen”, “ecstasy” or “3D.” It absolutely doesn’t live up to its hype, but how could it really? Hype can be a slippery slope, and considering that 3D Sex and Zen is average and also inaccessible to casual consumers, a backlash would be more than understood. However, non-casual consumers (a.k.a. fans of the genre, extreme cinema or crap) will likely not be disappointed, as the film is pretty much what we think it is – not more and not less. Ultimately, the filmmakers’ biggest success is how they got all of us to talk about the film. In that, they absolutely excelled, and deserve to win a Hong Kong Film Award for Best Marketing. Too bad there isn’t one. (Kozo, 2011)