3D Sex and Zen: Extreme Ecstasy – Starring Hiro Hayama, Leni Lan and Tony Ho. Directed by Christopher Sun Lap Key. Rated R. By Simon Miraudo.
Jiggly is the status of 3D technology as it teeters on the cusp between ‘tool to enhance storytelling’ and ‘eye-gouging annoyance’. There is a war taking place in lounge rooms, cinemas and movie studios around the world. Moguls are gleefully celebrating their discovery of an inexpensive visual enhancement that allows them to inflate ticket prices, and temporarily stem the decline in box office takings. Audiences, meanwhile, are dubious of these so-called advancements, wondering if it’s really worth paying a premium price for a not-so-premium product. There are defectors on each side. Who’da thunk Christopher Sun Lap Key’s 3D Sex and Zen: Extreme Ecstasy would be a watershed title in the debate over three dimensions? No, I don’t believe this soft-core skin flick – complete with pert bodily instruments stretching out beyond the confines of lousy two-dimensional cinema screens – is what James Cameron envisioned as the future of film when he poured millions of dollars into the development of the floating forests of Pandora. But the financial success of Sex and Zen – in Hong Kong it had a bigger opening day than Avatar – suggests that 3D may win this battle in the long run, and will perhaps return pornos to theatres (with a few, ahem, augmentations of course).
It’s hard to imagine today the penetration of pornography into the mainstream consciousness following the release of low-budget Deep Throat to cinemas. One of the first pornos to employ a narrative – speaking generously – the film was embraced by audiences of the freewheeling 1970s. The picture graduated from grimy, back alley ‘sinemas’ and headed to the multiplexes, where married couples, curious 18-year-olds and elderly people with too much free time were afforded the opportunity to join perverts in an evening of erotica. The advent of VHS technology in the following decade would revolutionise the way people consumed these raunchy films; why go to the cinema to catch Emmanuelle 4 and risk accidentally bumping into your church group, when you could simply enjoy the film in the comfort of your own home? The internet would change the game even further, allowing people all over the world footage of every possible sexual combination and scenario (and, if you were game, to upload your own cheeky recording). It’s been a long time since a sex flick – one that wasn’t helmed by Michael Winterbottom or John Cameron Mitchell – has lit up a cinema marquee. There hasn’t been a good enough reason to release one and expect anyone to awkwardly purchase a ticket for it. 3D is the excuse, and now inquisitive teenagers, ironic hipsters and film critics abusing their power can see some softcore on the big screen once again.
Extreme Ecstasy isn’t the first 3D porno – that honour belongs to South Korean feature Natali – but it’s the only one I’ve seen, and thus, what we are discussing today. Based on the 1657 novel The Carnal Prayer Mat – a loose adaptation I’m assuming – it tells the story of Yangsheng, a Ming Dynasty scholar (Hiro Hayama) who can’t satisfy his wife Yuxiang (Leni Lan) in the biblical sense. A hedonistic prince (Tony Ho) introduces him to a pansexual nudefest where all his whims and fantasies are desired, and Yangsheng is taught how to make love for days on end. But with great power comes great responsibility. He betrays his wife, falls in with an evil asexual shaman and arranges for his teensy member to be replaced with a donkey’s. So, that happens.
How is the 3D – the film’s raison d’etre – you ask? Surprisingly good. Perhaps it’s simply because Key’s camera spends so much time lingering over nude bodies that the cinematography seems more focused than in high-octane action films. Perhaps it’s simply because Key’s camera spends so much time lingering over nude bodies, you forget completely that the damn thing is in 3D. The subtitles are an undeniable annoyance – not exactly a deal breaker, but an interesting note if all films are eventually to be released in this format as James Cameron continually threatens they will be.
The film itself is terrible, which should come as no surprise. The acting is atrocious, the special effects are laughable, the dialogue is insane and the plot is mostly incomprehensible. Despite taking place during the 1600s, it conforms to all your favourite porn tropes, and although there isn’t a pizza boy, a coal delivery man gets his share of the action. But what makes the film particularly bad is that it suffers from delusions of grandeur. At times 3D Sex and Zen revels in its ridiculousness and comes across like a masterpiece in trash cinema, but too often it strives for deeper meaning, and in the process delivers a rather questionable depiction of a sexual relationship. In short: it’s a little rapey. The grotesque sexual violence here is used to titillate, and that’s unacceptable in reasonable society (even one where we all go and pay $22.50 to see a porno with a couple hundred other people).
In Paul Thomas Anderson’s Boogie Nights, impresario Jack Horner dreams of a day when nudie flicks can compete in cinemas with more highfalutin films. Production values. A narrative. Ten-ways. They could have it all. Not even he could have imagined the possibility of all those body parts aggressively threatening the audience in 3D, yet that is the brave new world we live in now. Does 3D Sex and Zen: Extreme Ecstasy fulfil Horner’s greatest desire? Absolutely. Will it herald a new age in cinema, and once and for all convince people to embrace 3D and help bring audiences back to the cinema? Maybe . As a piece of an erotic cinema, how does it compare to its contemporaries? Well, this is the only one I’ve ever seen so I really wouldn’t know…
3D Sex and Zen is now showing in select cinemas across Australia.