As a reviewer and attempted authority on the various genres that came with the rating, it's important to talk of what Category III the rating and Category III the genre-symbol is associated with and one thing and a movie that makes a strong case for being a poster boy for adult Hong Kong cinema, is Michael Mak's Sex And Zen. Released on the 30th of November 1991 and eventually earning close to 19 million Hong Kong dollars, the movie would spawn 2 sequels (in 1996 and 1998 respectively) and also a 2002, probably cheap resurgence in the form of Sex And Zen - The Prostitute In Jiang Nan and Sex & Zen Vol. 3 and Vol. 4. Part of the period softcore sex movie-genre that got its share of inspired imitators and painful and shameful imitators in the wake of the 19 million dollar success, actually the 90s wasn't the birth of the idea of letting gorgeous (or not) women in period costumes also have sex.
No, you can track back to Shaw Brothers who had the resources to put on quite a (s)exploitation show, including in Chor Yuen's classic Intimate Confessions Of A Chinese Courtesan (1972) and Li Han-Hsiang tackled the classical Chinese 100 chapter novel Jin Ping Mei (The Plum In the Golden Vase) in Golden Lotus (1974). A personal favourite that's remained undiscovered is Ho Fan's 1987 visual masterpiece Yu Pui Tsuen II, a movie clearly aiming to be Cat III arthouse but it's so incredibly mesmerizing and Ho Fan proved with his sex comedies such as Girl With The Long Hair (1975) he had a flair for the visual, sex and also comedy. Also a full year before Sex And Zen, Nam Nai-Choi's Erotic Ghost Story managed to provide an 11 million Hong Kong dollar take at the box office (even the sequel was released before the November premiere of Zen), which is relatively impressive (series reached three movies, concluding in 1992 if you exclude Erotic Ghost Story - Perfect Match by Lam Yee-Hung in 1997).
It's important connecting Yu Pui Tsuen II and Sex And Zen because they are in fact the same story adapted for the screen, loosely based on the 1657 novel The Carnal Prayer Mat, an infamous Chinese erotic novel by 17th century author and playwright Li Yu. Banned for its erotic depiction, the movies discussed here also depicts various facets within the story beats. One stoic and serious, one clearly not and it's the 1991 movie that falls in the latter camp. A pure delight of raw erotica and outrageous comedy striving to mean absolutely nothing... ultimately it does as part of genre cinema history.
Scholar Yan Ching (Lawrence Ng) marries the daughter (the character Chou Yin, played by Amy Yip) of Master Iron Gate (Tien Feng) for wealth and influence essentially. After getting past her resistance to sex, he moves on in the world with his trusted servant and assistance from a thief (Lo Lieh) to find more ways to exercise his inner lust. Eventually going one step too far by lusting for the wife (Ayukawa Mari) of Wang Qi (Elvis Tsui), it signals the start of a downfall involving love, hatred and lust...
As funny as Sex And Zen is and clearly more lighthearted than attempting to say anything of substance, through Lawrence Ng's pitch perfect portrayal of Yan Ching there actually is interest in analyzing the classic character on his way to a downfall after stepping on everyone to get his way in life. Although director Michael Mak has fun initially with the way he faces sexual resistance from his new bride played by Amy Yip. All of a sudden husband and wife have way different looks at sex and Ng's reactions having to sedate her (at her request) is priceless and she is a terrific comedienne in this sequence. Of course warming up to the joys of sex eventually, at the other end of the spectrum Yan Ching encounters the sexually aggressive in Isabelle Chow's character and being forced to eat her let's say juices and his own semen is simply too gross for the lecherous scholar.
Which brings up a point that Sex And Zen pretty much goes for it in its depiction of dynasty erotica. Although including within them concepts (high flying ones even, mainly through Elvis Tsui's use of chains in the rape/lovemaking scene he has with Ayukawa Mari), steam factor is pretty high and borderlining on hardcore porn at points. The lesbian scene involving Chow and Rena Murakami where they go ass to ass with a flute between them is strikingly graphic for a Category III softcore flick as well.
Equally remembered for Peter Ngor's colourful cinematography, beautiful costumes and make-up, Sex And Zen IS out there and embraces it. Kent Cheng makes a memorable appearance as a surgeon responsible for Yan Ching's horse penis transplant and even seasoned viewers of this seedy side to Hong Kong cinema will find their jaws dropping. Not out of disgust but because of an outrageous concept executed well.
Rather than full coherence, ultimately it is about individual set pieces, some slight themes and character development but Sex And Zen is simply unique, sexy, outrageous fun from Hong Kong cinema who were coming out hard out of the gate early once the creative minds started imagining period softcore erotica within the newly established Category III rating. Amazing what something adult brings out from seemingly more classy people, including the game cast. That makes this scattershot adult experience all the more meaningful (yet not), important and simply put, classic.
reviewed by Kenneth Brorsson