More sex? More zen? 3D SEX AND ZEN: EXTREME ECSTASY Extended Director's Cut BluRay review!
Oh, these are notable days for reviewers of Asian cinema. Scorched by the disapproving glares of moralistic family members we can rightly say that we just HAVE to watch "Sex and Zen: Extreme Ecstasy", because it's one of the biggest Chinese blockbusters of all time and otherwise how we can claim to have knowledge concerning modern Chinese Cinema? There is just no way around it (although upon hearing this argument, my annoyingly quick-witted wife immediately asked me if that meant I was finally going to watch "The Founding of a Republic" as well, but for SOME films I can trust other peoples' opinions I suppose...).
Panorama recently released "Sex and Zen: Extreme Ecstasy" on nearly every technical platform currently known to man, so I picked one version which contained the 15 minute longer Director's Cut. Well... 20 minutes longer if you live in the UK as the BBFC did act out quite a bit of their own brand of "dismemberment" to this film, due to the combination of sex and violence on display.
But what did I think of the film in its longest (oo-er) cut? Read on!
Scholar Wei Yangsheng falls in love with Tie Yuxiang and the two marry. All is bliss except for the sex, as Yangsheng is underendowed and also never lasts longer than three seconds.
That changes when Yangsheng decides to investigate the corrupt business of the extremely decadent Prince of Ning, to report him to the Emperor. Yangsheng's curiosity, vanity and lust get the better of him though and he starts to serve the evil Prince in return for experiencing many pleasures of the flesh.
But his dive into a life of debauchery costs him his marriage, and as Yangsheng gets greedy for even MORE pleasure he walks into a trap which costs him a whole lot more...
The first thing you see and notice in "Sex and Zen: Extreme Ecstasy" are the opening credits. These are animated in 3D as swirls of ink in water form mountains, roads, temples and people. It is a technically ambitious and quite beautiful bit of animation, basically the last thing you'd expect at the start of a sex film.
This sequence is followed by a few lavishly dressed scenes, and indeed the first ten minutes of the film do not feature any nudity whatsoever. This is because at its heart, "Sex & Zen: Extreme Ecstasy" is not a sex film.
There, I've said it. "Sex & Zen: Extreme Ecstasy" is NOT a sex film. Oh, it has a few things to say about sex, there are a boatload of nude women on display whenever the Prince of Ning is around and there is some dry-humping involved but for most of its running time, this is a historical costume drama with some action, many silly jokes and a lot of torture. Despite the hysterical advert-campaign loudly proclaiming this to be the first 3D-porn movie, it isn't. It isn't porn but softporn at most and even if you count softporn as porn, it would still not be the first. Case in point: this BluRay now shares shelfspace with the (excellent) DVD-release of "The Stewardesses", a film which precedes "Sex & Zen: Extreme Ecstasy" by more than 40 years.
So what we have here is a costume drama with, granted, some sex scenes. In a local industry which hasn't been making these for some time I can assume "Sex & Zen: Extreme Ecstasy" makes quite a splash, but on the international market people will be far less shocked by the erotic content found herein.
What will shock people is the amount of violence, especially in the second half. When the fighting and torturing starts in earnest (cgi) blood flows in buckets and people come as easily apart as overripe fruit. You see arms, legs, heads fly off and some soldiers are totally "cleft in twain". Oh, and penises of course, both animal and human, they come off as well. So as to not leave women out of the party there is also a metal flower-shaped scraping device to take care of their genitals, and it looks REALLY uncomfortable. In fact, if "Sex & Zen: Extreme Ecstasy" counts as porn it definitely also counts as torture-porn.
But before the viewer gets to that part of the film there is indeed a lot to like. The erotic scenes are quite coy, even more so than the original "Sex and Zen" in the early 90's (more about that later), the actors and actresses are very beautiful, the art direction pleasing and the costumes stunning. There was a serious portion of the budget spent on clothing and it shows. And the whole 3D-aspect mentioned so profusely in the advertising is not an idle boast. Whether you see this film in 3D or in 2D you will note that a lot of stuff is constantly thrown at the camera. Knives, coins, water, blood... the 3D elements are very obvious. Whether in dimensions or flat, during the first half the silly proceedings are played for laughs and even though most of the jokes do not travel too well, the film gets by on its good looks and a general good-natured goofiness.
That changes though in the second half once the raping and ample amputations start. I was very surprised to see how far they took this and anyone watching this film to be aroused will be wondering what to do as all erotic content suddenly flees the script, not to return.
But without having the erotic content to look forward to, does the film provide a compelling enough narrative to stave off the imminent disappointment of all those people who were lured to the film with the promise of copious 3D sex? The current low IMDB score seems to imply otherwise. It's worthy of note that the story has been changed a lot from the 1991 version of "Sex and Zen", despite the fact that both are based on the same ancient book called "The Carnal Prayer Mat". In the extras on the BluRay, producer Stephen Siu explicitly states that he wanted to remake the three most classic scenes of the earlier film (the bathtub-sex-scene, the swinging-like-Tarzan-from-the-ceiling-sex-scene, and the horse-penis-swapping-scene) but use a new story. If the penis-swapping is the most infamous of those three, the bathtub-scene must surely be the most pleasantly famous. In the original, the star of that scene was Ami Yip who almost made it a 3D-film all by herself. That scene was fiercely erotic and placed near the end of the film. Typically, this scene has now been moved to the first half as its "sex-can-be-fun" message does not fit the new film's last part.
Also added to the new film is a true villain in the Prince of Ning, played with gusto by Tony Ho who seems to be having a blast. Together with Vonnie Lui (who plays a hermaphrodite wizard) he adds a truly wicked presence to the film and both remain watchable even when the story turns mean-spirited.
Otherwise the cast is sufficient though not particularly outstanding, cobbled together for looks rather than acting ability. The two Japanese AV-actresses look enticing and... well that is all what is expected of them.
So apart from looks and historical relevance to the Chinese film industry there aren't too many reasons to watch this, unless you actually like torture-porn in which case I suggest to have a go: you will end up more thrilled than most people.
The Director's Cut adds nearly fifteen minutes to the theatrical 3D cut, and included is some rather extreme content which was excised because test audiences and the Hong Kong censorship thought it was too gross. This includes the Yangsheng character squeezing some lactating lady's breasts during an orgy, causing milk to fountain out and cover the entire group. Also, the sequence where the Prince of Ning accidentally fucks a concubine to death during rough sex is a lot longer. Neither of these examples is particularly arousing but then again, that goes for most of the film anyway.
While a bit of hypocrisy in softcore is not a new thing, "Sex & Zen: Extreme Ecstasy" must surely be the most anti-sex-message sexfilm I've ever seen. It's pretty but vapid and what will stick with you after seeing it will probably be not the sex but the torture.
Interesting but not much recommended. Then again, you will already know whether or not you want to see this anyway or be curious like I was, so who am I to try and dissuade you?
On to the BluRay(s):
Hong Kong distributor Panorama rolled up their sleeves and unleashed an impressive variety of different editions on different media for this, quite probably their most lucrative title this year.
The edition reviewed here combines the 3D-theatrical version with the 2D-Director's Cut on a single disc. Frankly I was afraid this would impact the visual quality but to my surprise I could spot no errors here, both versions of the film look fine. For soundtrack there is the choice between Cantonese and eh... Cantonese, either in lossless PCM or DTS-HD.
It is worthy of note that while Panorama has a very shaky past with English-friendlyness they have gone out of their way to make these releases good ones for the international market. The BluRay editions are regionfree and the English subtitles are pretty damn good, a big difference from the bizarre unreadable made-up garbage they put underneath their edition of "Ghost in the Shell: StandAlone Complex". And get this: English subs are everywhere, including the menus and the extras. Subbed extras? Well I never!
The extras are mostly a series of short behind-the-scenes vignettes, each with the same opening and end credits taking up a quarter of the time. There is no real in-depth views here but a few snippets here and there are worth watching. No added nudity as every bit is covered with masks like those in Japanese "pink" films. Included are the trailers including the funny "category III-D" teaser which started everyone's awareness a few years back.
Finally I would like to compliment Panorama on the packaging. This is by no means a pimped edition (so the price is pretty damn steep) but the single disc is handsomely housed in a black BluRay case within a slipcase, the front of which is a removable 3D-lenticular card picturing one of the film's onesheets. This card is very well done, in fact it is one of the best lenticulars I've ever seen. Like the film itself it adds a touch of unexpected polish to the release.
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If you want one of the many other versions with just the 3D-version, or just the Director's Cut, or the DVD, or the VCD, just scroll down that page and you should see a list of alternative editions waiting for you.
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