There is nothing “Zen” about this Hong Kong category-3 erotic fantasy (the original Chinese title also recognizes this). Instead, it is an in-your-face display of violence, sadism, faked orgy, flying body parts, penis chopping, throbbing boobs, and over-sized dildos. The term “zen” is a catch phrase in the West, and could represent anything that is mysterious, “oriental,” and possibly hard to understand. Thus, relating sex to zen seems to be a way to make the film more accessible in the West. If this is the case, I would recommend naming the film “Kung Fu Sex,” since many love-making scenes look more “kung fu” than “zen,” including a scene in which an androgyny (played by Hong Kong busty porn star Vonnie Lui) proudly displays his/her prowess by lifting and swirling a wheel with his/her snake-like long penis/dildo. This is also where the film fails. It is supposed to be a soft-core porn with titillating and erotic scenes as major attractions, but the film’s kung fu-style treatment of those scenes, coupled with a thundering soundtrack and fast-talking dialogue, quickly turns it into an absurdly laughable exhibition of sheer stupidity.
Loosely based on the Chinese sex classic The Carnal Prayer Mat (肉蒲团), which seems to be an inexhaustible source for Hong Kong soft-core films, this recent adaptation re-displays many cliches associated with ancient Chinese sexual techniques of the “inner chamber:” absorbing yin-yang energies, playful use of sex toys, prolonging sex with ecstasy pills, and penis enlargement fantasies. But it does have a modern twist: while it tries, in vain, to deliver an elementary Buddhist message that indulging in excessive sex will result in disaster, it also ends with a laughable moral lesson that love endures without sex (a female chastity belt is introduced) and love conquers everything. Womanizer Wei Yangsheng (the male protagonist) and his lustful wife are portrayed as a devoted couple who stage a Titanic-like finale.
As if to combine the Hong Kong softcore tradition and Japanese pink cinema, 3D Sex and Zen has a strong Japanese flavor (or maybe it aims to be an Asian crossover hit). It features several Japanese AV stars, with Hayama Hiro playing Wei Yangsheng, the Chinese scholar obsessed with sexual techniques, Suo Yukiko playing Dongmei, a concubine f**ked to death, and Hara Saori playing a Chinese-style femme fatale. Although mainland actress Lan Yan (蓝燕, or Leni Lan) becomes “toast of the town” in China due to her naked involvement in the film (playing Wei’s lustful wife), it is Japanese AV star Hara Saori (原紗央莉, aka Nanami Mai 七海まい) who easily stands out from other naked bodies with her alluring look and performance, including a scene in which she succeeds in seducing a Buddhist abbot, a recurring theme in traditional Chinese stories, who commits suicide after being aroused.
Released in Hong Kong in April but banned in mainland China, 3D Sex and Zen quickly turns into a cult film for many Chinese who don’t have the opportunity to watch it on the big screen. It was even reported that quite a number of young people had traveled to Hong Kong in groups for the exclusive purpose of experiencing this big-screen ecstasy. Its U.S. release, however, is not going to make a splash in the free and crowded film market. In Los Angeles, it opened on August 12 in two independent theaters (Laemmle). I saw the film in Pasadena and there were no more than 15 people in the 160-seat theater (several of them walked out of the theater in the middle). According to Box Office Mojo, as of August 21, 10 days after its release, the film earned $43,592 at the U.S. box office. The film is marked as NR (Not Rated), meaning it never went to the MPAA rating office, a sure sign that it will never have the hope to play at U.S. commercial theaters.
One interesting aspect about the film’s U.S. landing is that it is distributed by the newly formed China Lion, a joint venture between China-based Jiang Yanming (蒋燕鸣) and New Zealand-based Milt Barlow (the latter via his company, Incubate) with Yanming, the majority shareholder, serving in the role of President and Barlow serving as CEO. I don’t know if it has the backing from the Chinese government, but based on the Chinese films it has distributed (all performed poorly in the U.S. market), including Beginning of the Great Revival (2011), If You are the One II (2010), and The Butcher, the Chef and the Swordsman (2010), it seems the company is well connected with both the state-run and private studios. But the company needs to be reminded of one basic lesson, which Hollywood has already learned: a blockbuster in China is not necessarily a blockbuster in the U.S.; a small film in China might perform exceedingly well in a different cultural and political context.
As of August 27, 2011, two weeks after its release, the two LA Laemmle theaters have stopped running 3D Sex and Zen. It may signal the end of the film’s North America showing.