Erotica in 3D. It seems so obvious now. That is where the ticket price-inflating trend was heading the whole time. Billed as “the world’s first 3-D erotic film”, 3D Sex and Zen: Extreme Ecstasy is essentially a reworking of the same seventeenth century novel, “The Carnal Prayer Mat”, that served as the basis for the original Sex and Zen back in 1991. Although beaten to the screen by South Korea’s Natali from director Joo Kyung-jung, it has already earned a reputation in its native Hong Kong as beating Avatar‘s 2009 HK$2.5 million opening gross, the infamous tales of unrestrained lust have now entered a whole new dimension of oscillation.
Ming Dynasty scholar Wei Yangshen (Hiro Hayama, Shinjuku Incident) believes in living life to the fullest, encompassing all of its ultimate pleasures. After meeting and falling in love with Tie Yuxiang (Leni Lan), the daughter of a Taoist priest, they are married. However, things don’t go as well as they would expect in the boudoir, with Wei Yangshen’s smaller-than-average phallus and inability to sustain any longevity. So he journeys to the Prince of Ning and his Tower of Rarities, where Wei Yangshen can enjoy untold sexual delights and wild orgies around the clock. Yet this only increases his inadequacies, and forces him into some unusual elective surgery involving a donkey.
It is impossible to know where to start with 3D Sex and Zen: Extreme Ecstasy, so let’s begin with the second most obvious thing about the film: the 3D visuals. Shot in stereoscopic 3D on the high-definition Red One Camera, Jimmy Wong’s (Revenge: A Love Story) sumptuous cinematography looks magnificent on the big screen, and despite a plethora of objects and breasts flying at the screen for the more obvious uses of the third-dimension, the film is one of the most colourful and vibrant uses of 3D we have seen to date. Even with such dubious credits to her name as Fist Power and Raped by an Angel 5: The Final Judgement, Cindy Cheng’s costumes are lavishly detailed and add to the sheer spectacle of the film. Yet there is no use pretending for a second that this is an erotic art film in the same vein as Tinto Brass’ Caligula in the late 1970s, with much of the film merely an excuse to show a whole lot of breasts, bottoms and anachronistically trimmed pubic mounds. Populated with a cast of Japanese adult video stars, there is no awkwardness in the frequent undressing, with an almost celebratory attitude to the female form in the first half of the film. It scarcely matters that the narrative, such as it is, makes little literal sense for much of the film. Indeed, most will find it difficult to remember exactly what happened after the first three or four orgies.
However, 3D Sex and Zen: Extreme Ecstasy is a film divided. Despite some highly eroticised imagery in earlier moments of the film, and the trio of temptresses (Naami Hasegawa, Yukiko Suo and Saori Hara) are indeed beautiful on camera, the second half of the film is characterised by a mean streak that is sadistic in its depiction of sexuality. While many of these moments, much like the original, are aiming for the ‘hilariously grotesque’, the ridiculousness of enormous phalluses and impossibly acrobatic sex would be much easier to swallow were it not for a ratings-defying mixture of sexualised violence. There are at least two explicit rapes, and a third that “becomes consensual” mid-act, and repeated beatings of both men and women (but largely women) during the multitude of orgies and acrobatic displays of sexual prowess. It is unfathomable how a scene in which a woman is quite literally fornicated to death managed to make its way uncut to Australian screens, and while as film-lovers we are grateful for a more liberal interpretation of the strict Australian guidelines, there is still an ugliness that pervades much of the back half of 3D Sex and Zen: Extreme Ecstasy. The ultimate message, that true love doesn’t require sexual satisfaction, is undermined by this same sour streak. This is a shame, as when it works, the film is a celebration of unfettered sexuality in one of the most purely cinematic forms to date.
Already a hit around the world, the questionable sexual politics of 3D Sex and Zen: Extreme Ecstasy are unlikely to bother the majority of viewers willing to make the trip to the theatre. However, while the film is unquestionably beautiful to look at, and full of gorgeous bodies captured in stunning hi-def 3D, the sheer grotesquely brutal mean streak that characterises much of the latter half of the film will turn off many.
3D Sex and Zen: Extreme Ecstasy was released 14 April 2011 in Australia from Dream Movie Australia.
If you care about seeing Asian cinema in Australia on the big screen, we encourage you to go out and support the regular screenings at selected Event Cinemas and the regular Asian Cinema screenings at Hoyts Cinemas. Increasingly they are day-and-date with their Chinese release, so there are no excuses for that ‘other method’ of acquiring them.