Inspired in part by the revered, if controversial text, The Carnal Prayer Mat (essentially the Chinese Karma Sutra), Christopher Sun's first feature resurrects Hong Kong's hugely successful SEX AND ZEN series of 90s skin flicks with a bright, bawdy period comedy that raises as many laughs as it does carefully positioned loincloths - by which I mean quite a lot. The film is bursting at the seams with buxom beauties and frighteningly disproportioned heroes, as it details the exploits of a horny young scholar setting out to sew his wild oats, only to eventually address the real problems within his marital bedchamber.
Duly noted, precious few people will be interested in the plot of EXTREME ECSTASY, and in acknowledgement of this the writers keep things simple. Wei Yangsheng (Hiro Hayama) has intellect and talent to spare, enough to convince the wealthy Tie Fei to let him marry his beautiful daughter, Yuxiang (Leni Nam). Marital bliss proves elusive, however, as Yuxiang is frigid and Yangsheng incapable of lasting more than a few seconds in the sack. Frustrated, he leaves his wife at home and sets out to seek carnal pleasure elsewhere. He meets the renowned Prince of Ning, who invites our horny hero to his Pavilion of Ultimate Bliss - filled with the most eager, experienced and beautiful women in the land. Yangsheng's frustrations grow, however, when these gorgeous ladies ridicule him for his tiny penis - so he does the only natural thing and has his own microscopic member replaced with a massive donkey dick!
High art this most certainly is not, and nobody buying a ticket to see a film entitled 3D SEX AND ZEN should be looking for anything more than mild titillation. Their modest expectations, on the other hand, should be more than met as, even for a Category III film, EXTREME ECSTASY boasts a surprising amount of nudity. Admittedly it's all boobs and bums, with anything more revealing carefully obscured by a cocked leg or well-positioned vase, but rest assured the good-looking cast remain disrobed for most of the film. Plenty has been made in the media of the fact that the key female protagonists are played by recognisable Japanese AV stars, but it works to the film's credit. Naami Hasegawa, Yukiko Suo and Saori Hara, who portray the various temptresses in the Pavilion of Bliss, all look fantastic and entirely comfortable stripping off in front of the cameras. Little more is asked of them, so there is little to complain about.
But enough of the Sex, what about the Zen? Truth be told the film never appears particularly interested in fulfilling this part of its promise. We are introduced to The Elder of Bliss, an ancient monk who broke his vow of chastity and now instructs visitors to the Pavillion such as Yangsheng how to be more accomplished lovers - and so yes, we're back to sex again. The Elder maintains his youthful looks through enlightenment, yet inexplicably now takes the form of a stunning young woman (Vonnie Liu) - albeit one who speaks with the voice of an old man. This bizarre paradox is milked for plenty of laughs and the Elder is ultimately the film's most memorable character.
And what of the much-touted 3D? In a nutshell, it is surprisingly well-handled throughout, and although mostly used to enhance the CGI in the film's action scenes - with bullets and daggers flying towards the audience rather than any other, more offensive weaponry - there are still numerous occasions to ogle the cast stereoscopically. On the whole the film's production values are impressively high and dispel any suspicions that this might have been a slapdash production only interested in getting its cast naked. I've heard some snarky comments relating to the look of the cave set that houses the Pavilion of Ultimate Bliss, but frankly I was having too much fun with the film to notice. The sets, the photography and the costumes - for the scant few minutes they were being employed - were more than authentic enough not to draw attention to themselves.
The filmmakers' decision to play everything for laughs doesn't always succeed, however, and there are a few sequences that sit uncomfortably alongside the CARRY ON style antics of the film's first half. As one might expect from a film that explores the manipulative power of sex and how it can be used and misused for pleasure and control, 3D SEX AND ZEN does include scenes of rape. While one instance is clearly a violent and malicious attack on a defenseless woman, another instance shows Yuxiang, left alone and neglected by her errant husband, being forcibly, yet successfully, seduced by a laborer. It is conceivable that Yuxiang's loneliness and frustration may cause her to succumb to and embrace her intruder's advances in the heat of the moment, which are backed up when they do subsequently elope together. But this is then negated later on, when we learn that the laborer was intentionally sent to rape Yuxiang, regardless of how she reacted.
Ultimately, the film starts strongly but, like its hero, lacks the stamina to go the distance, running out of steam a good half-hour before things are eventually wrapped up. When it does reach its climax, however, it does so in a surprisingly earnest and romantic way. The film's parting message is that love wins out over lust, outer beauty is fleeting and trivial, and after the physical attraction wanes and your sex life dries up, it is romance, respect and mutual understanding that make for an enduring, successful relationship. Considering the vacuous, materialistic messages put forward in the majority of Chinese romantic comedies these days, 3D SEX AND ZEN: EXTREME ECSTASY proves to be surprisingly honest and uplifting.