|The award for 2009's most unfortunate bait-and-switch goes to The Forbidden Legend: Sex & Chopsticks II. The 2008 original was a sleazy, cheesy but amusing retro experience that recalled the glory days of Hong Kong Category III erotica. Sex & Chopsticks I could never be counted among the genre's best, but the bawdy humor, over-the-top sex scenes and period setting made it a welcome blast from the past. Sex & Chopsticks II continues that trend, except it recalls another variation on the genre: the slightly disturbing, blood-spattered, sex-as-death morality play. Hong Kong has done it well before, e.g. Chinese Torture Chamber Story or even the downer ending of the original Sex and Zen. However those films managed their combination of bawdy comedy, cautionary tale, and lurid erotica thanks to varying tones and the fact that they were each standalone films. As a follow-up to the amusing original, Sex & Chopsticks II disappoints.
Like the first Sex & Chopsticks, this sequel is based on Jin Ping Mei a.k.a. The Plum in the Golden Vase, the famous 17th century Chinese novel. This is a loose adaptation, departing heavily from the source material - though really, that shouldn't be a big deal because the first Sex & Chopsticks did the same too. Lam Wai-Kin returns as Simon Qing, the rich scholar who deflowered nun Moon (AV star Hikaru Wakana) before deciding to take on a concubine, the small-footed Lotus (AV star Serina Hayakawa). As detailed at the end of Sex & Chopsticks I, Simon conspired with Lotus to off her dwarf husband Wu Da-Lang (Ng Chi-Hung), which marked his first act of evil related to his growing lust.
When Sex & Chopsticks II opens, Simon has since graduated to full-blown bastard, shown in his self-admitted status as a sex addict, his rising taste for fetishes, his insensitivity towards Moon and Lotus, and his lust for other men's wives. Specifically, he targets Pinky (AV starlet Kaera Uehara), the wife of horny pal Hua Xizu (Tam Kon-Chung) and a dead ringer for Simon's first love Violetta. Using lies, aphrodisiacs, and some wife-swapping rationale, Simon plots to ravish Pinky - even if it means offing Hua Xizu along the way. Meanwhile, Wu Da-Lang's brother Wu Song (Wu Qing-Zhe) is looking to take down Simon, but Simon has some preventive measures in place. What he doesn't know is that Lotus once had a thing for Wu Song. Will she help Wu Song to exact revenge on Simon?
Actually, no. Lotus' connection to Wu Song is merely an excuse for even more softcore sex, with one scene involving Lotus gratifying herself while Wu Song is getting the tar whipped out of him. Yeah, you read that right. Sex & Chopsticks II is loaded with wall-to-wall nudity and sex scenes, so it manages to fulfill one of its expectations. However, if one expects the film to be fun, then they may be disappointed because the film isn't that. The sex scenes are much longer this time out, but most of them are portrayed as disquieting, as frequently there's some unhappy subtext going on. People here have sex while going mad, while under the influence of drugs, as part of murderous adultery, or even when they're about to die. These aren't happy times.
The above isn't technically a flaw as the original novel wasn't exactly wall-to-wall fun, either (in the original source material, Simon is an unrepentant murderer and betrayer, and dies of an aphrodisiac overdose). However, given the way the first film played out, the change in tone is off-putting. The content in Sex & Chopsticks II is still bawdy and off-color, but it also crosses the line into disturbing. Furthermore, the combination of a subdued tone and the extended sex scenes occasionally makes the movie boring. The accompanying soundtrack, which sometimes sounds like wannabe Bernard Herrmann, isn't much help either. If the filmmakers were trying to ape Lust, Caution in its "sex as tension" action, they did a pretty bad job.
As compensation, we get professional actresses. The Japanese AV starlets from the first make a return, and they're willing to do whatever the film needs, i.e. they appear naked and act like they're enjoying the sometimes-extreme love scenes. However, sometimes the film requires them to really act, and the results are uneven. Hikaru Wakana turns in the best performance as Moon, though she gets less screentime in this installment. Serina Hayakawa is rather distant as Lotus, and Kaera Uehara sometimes looks like she's laughing when she's supposed to be crying. Male lead Lam Wai-Kin is more convincing in this installment as the corrupted version of Simon Qing, but there's little continuity in his character between the two films. In the first film, he doesn't seem that bad, while in the sequel he's pretty much the worst guy ever. Character development does not seem to be a big deal here.
Asking director Cash Chin for Last Tango in Ancient China would be way beyond reasonable expectations, and fittingly the film never approaches anything resembling serious quality. However, even with dialed-down expectations, Sex & Chopsticks II doesn't satisfy as it's simply a poor follow-up to the first. Sex & Chopsticks I showed a commitment to the genre, and to making the film fun, while the second only sporadically does so. There are some moments here that feel like they echo the spirit of the first film - one sex scene involving grapes as erotic projectiles comes to mind - but by and large, Sex & Chopsticks II is a numbing dirge. Movies that try to combine the elements of both Sex & Chopsticks films should do so more evenly; splitting the film in two and making the first part more fun simply guarantees that anyone who enjoyed the first film will not enjoy the second. It could be a cinema axiom.
Sealing the deal is the appearance of Winnie Leung, who plays the pivotal role of Simon's maid Plum. Only mentioned at the end of the first film, Plum gets a big role here, but Winnie Leung is not up to the task. Aside from the 33 year-old actress being miscast in a young maiden's role, her nudity is only hinted at, with cloth, limbs, or awkward staging used to preserve Leung's modesty. It's not that the audience necessarily needs Leung to appear nude, but if the other actresses go the distance, shouldn't Leung do so also? Better yet, they could have simply hired an actress who would do what the other actors were willing to, thereby creating some consistency. But again, we're probably asking too much, since this Sex & Chopsticks sequel squelches any notion that someone was trying to make a fun genre retread, and instead reveals what the film truly is: a product designed to make quick money. That's unfortunate, and so is this: there are no chopsticks whatsoever in Sex & Chopsticks II. In the last film, there was at least one pair. This time, nada, zilch, zero. The disappointment is now even greater. (Kozo 2009)