Sex and Zen: Extreme Ecstacy [2D] DVD Review

The Film
Where do I begin? I mean, honestly, where do I begin to catalogue the idiocy, ineptitude and tedium of these 105 minutes? I should perhaps begin with a little history; the category 3 films (Hong Kong’s equivalent of the US NC-17 certificate) of the early 1990’s were some of the first world cinema releases I noticed. I’m not proud of that, but I was 12 at the time, not allowed to watch 18 rated films, and the tapes all had scantily clad Chinese girls on the covers, so they caught my attention. The Sex and Zen series began in 1991 and spawned two ‘direct’ sequels and a spinoff film called Sex and the Emperor. Like the previous sequels, this film doesn’t follow on from the plot or characters of Sex and Zen, but simply offers another combination of sex, violence and incongruous comedy. Seeing this film, I’m rather glad I never got to see the earlier ones when I was younger, as, as well as being pretty disgusting at times, Sex and Zen: Extreme Ecstacy is one of the least sexy films I’ve seen.

The film I keep coming back to in terms of comparison is Paul Verhoeven’s NC-17 diasterpiece Showgirls. Like that film, Sex and Zen has some truly ludicrous sex scenes, and so much nudity that at a certain point even the keenest viewer will probably decide that, on reflection, he’s a little bored of breasts now. Where the resemblance stops is at the plot level. The basics are as follows; the film is set during the Ming dynasty (mid 12th – mid 15th century) Wei Yangsheng (Hiro Hayama) and Tie Yuxiang (Leni Lan Yan) meet and fall instantly in love, but after they are married their sex life is disappointing. Wanting to learn some new sexual tricks, Yangsheng goes with his friend to The Tower of Rarities, which seems to be a very exclusive brothel run by The Prince of Ning (Tony Ho), soon though Yangsheng finds himself seduced by the Tower of Rarities, and begins a journey of sexual discovery which leads to much pain for him and his young wife. That’s not the whole deal, of course, Yangsheng also gets ensnared by an androgynous being called The Elder of Bliss (I say androgynous, it’s actually a beautiful actress named Vonnie Lui, poorly dubbed by a gruff man) and there are plenty of side characters too, and that’s half the problem, because for a sexploitation movie this is a hell of a challenge to follow.

I realise that complaining about the writing in a sexploitation film is a bit like saying that Indiana Jones is a rubbish archaeologist – true, but hardly the point – but that doesn’t stop it being a problem here, as the characters never really feel like anything more than props, and their motivations and personalities seem to change from scene to scene. The whole film is rather like this, for instance I’m sure I didn’t fall asleep at all, and I’m really not certain why a particular Buddhist monk becomes important late in the film. That said, these are really the least of the film’s issues.

The biggest problem is that, on top of being rampantly unsexy, Sex and Zen is actually a pretty uncomfortable watch because of the way it treats women. Most exploitation films treat women, to some degree, as objects, and that’s never particularly nice to watch, but here director Christopher Sun doesn’t let any woman have any other role than as a sexual thing you can’t even really say a sexual being, because none of them has anything you could call a personality. Every woman in this film exists to be stripped, ogled, and in many cases raped. I’ve been watching exploitation movies, good and bad, for a long time, and so I’ve seen worse things than this, but for anyone who isn’t accustomed to the genre I can imagine this film being pretty shocking and disgusting. I don’t think the two minutes of BBFC cuts help either, if anything they put one scene that seems quite heavily truncated into a consensual grey area that is deeply unhelpful to the tone of the movie, and indeed to the plot, which turns on the idea that that scene is a rape scene. I also found it especially difficult to watch the very innocent looking Leni Lan Yan being victimised with increasing frequency throughout the film, but the whole thing leaves a nasty taste in the mouth to be honest.

As well as being unsexy and somewhat offensive, this film is just crap. Cheap looking, poorly made, crap. For an illustration of how cut rate the film feels, look no further than the exterior shots of the Tower of Rarities. I’m sorry, did I say shots? I meant shot, because all we see of the outside of the tower is the same establishing shot, which is used perhaps a dozen time, sometimes with a handful of tiny CGI figures walking up to it over which exposition can be dubbed. It’s a feeling that pervades the film, particularly in terms of the ‘special’ effects. The CGI is state of the art, if you’re currently residing in 2002, which is better than can be said for the ridiculously broad performances, cack handed editing and cheap attempts at 3D spectacle (which seem in this version to be all about things being thrown at us). When the film tries to be funny it comes up desperately short and juvenile (one thing this has in common with American ‘adult’ comedies of the moment is the mistaken idea that penises are inherently hilarious), and the comedy also skirts very near to becoming offensive much of the time.

Overall though, I’m not angry about Sex and Zen: Extreme Ecstacy, I wasn’t deeply morally wounded by it, I just thought it was stupid, and a waste of my time. If you want to watch a film about sex, rent Shortbus, if you want to watch an exploitation movie, check out Thriller: A Cruel Picture or something similar, but give this mess a wide berth either way.

The Disc
Unfortunately (?) my screener didn’t include either the making of featurette or the Red/Blue 3D glasses which will come with the retail copy. On the plus side the picture looked excellent, with realistic skin tones and decent black levels and the soundtrack is similarly solid, but for one issue. On the downside… everything else. Whether it’s a flaw inherent to the print, a problem with the screener, or something that will pervade retail copies, the sound sync was some way out on my disc. The subtitles are abysmal; riddled with grammar and spelling errors, clearly poorly translated and frequently missing out chunks of dialogue, as well as being so tiny I had to strain to read them from no more than 10 feet away from my 32 inch screen. This, frankly, is unacceptable, and renders a bad movie pretty well unwatchable.

UPDATE: 3D glasses arrived the day after I initially posted this review. I sampled the 3D version of the film with these Red/Blue glasses. Guess what? To call the 3D shamefully, unwatchably, piss awful would be to over praise it. The colours bleed into a single tone of red, the 3D effects offer a tiny amount of utterly artificial depth and the subtitles are even more impossible to read. An unreleasably awful effort, for which I am revising my grade down from 1/5 to 0.5/5

About The Author

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.