Friday, August 26, 2011

The Scandalous Ming Scholar: Sex & Zen 3D

Imagine the world’s first 3D erotic film coming from the Disney studios while the Old Man himself was still running the show. It is almost as shocking that Hong Kong filmmakers would blaze that trail (particularly post 1997 hand-over), but such is the case. As a result, all serious film historians must surely take due note of Christopher Sun’s Sex and Zen 3D: Extreme Ecstasy (trailer here), currently playing in mainstream New York theaters.

Based on Li Yu’s novel The Carnal Prayer Mat, something of the Ming Dynasty equivalent of Fanny Hill, S&Z tells the story of the talented but shallow scholar Wei Yangsheng, who chunks away his respectable married life to partake in the hedonism of the nefarious Prince Ning’s secret vice lair. In return for his expertise with antiquities, the Prince allows him nearly free reign with the women. Unfortunately, his shortcomings, if you will, lead to considerable embarrassment for the faithless scholar. Not one to take things laying down, Wei Yangsheng approaches the outwardly beautifully (but androgynous where it counts) Elder of Bliss to teach him the cosmic secrets of carnal pleasure. The first step: a transplant, in 3D. You’ve been warned.

Of course, everyone is probably wondering the same thing about S&Z: just how much Zen does it really have? In truth, only a bit. The scholar’s old teacher is a Buddhist monk, whose piety draws the ire of Prince Ning. There is a lot of sex though.

Kind-of-sort-of rebooting the early 1990’s HK softcore Sex and Zen franchise, the 3D S&Z’s nudity is almost entirely from the waist up, except for what might be described as comedic prosthetics. However, there is a lot of stimulated action going on (which in a bit of a miscalculation, gets rather darker in nature down the stretch), so it should probably be considered more of an NC-17 film than a hard R.

Frankly, it is quite significant how many of the female roles had to be played by Japanese actresses. However, the stunning Saori Hara and Yukiko Suo are obviously well suited to play Ruizhu and Dongmei, the pleasure palace’s top seductresses. Yet, Vonnie Lui might be the most striking femme fatale (for lack of a better term) as the Elder. In contrast, Hiro Hayama’s Wei Yangsheng is too schmucky to be much of an emotional rooting interest.

Perhaps the biggest surprise of S&Z is the quality of the 3D. Unlike many Hollywood fixer-uppers, the 3D effects seem well integrated into the film as a whole, especially the elegant opening credit sequence evoking traditional Chinese landscape painting. Mercifully, there are not a lot of scenes of pointy things sticking out at the audience either, besides the flying daggers seen during the action sequences.

S&Z is like one of the more risqué NYAFF selections cranked up to eleven. It is more of less what you think it is, with an almost convincing paean to the superior virtues of romantic love tacked on for respectability’s sake. Destined to become a cult classic (and not without good reason), S&Z should be in theaters for quite some time (albeit most likely for late night screenings), courtesy of China Lion, the leading international distributor of popular Chinese cinema. Recommended more for informed patrons looking to enjoy some on-screen naughtiness than those looking for some 3D for its own sake, it is currently playing at the Village East in New York and the South Lamar Alamo Drafthouse in Austin, Texas.