A Must-See, “Sex and Zen” is highly erotic and highly funny.
A wealthy educated man is arranged to marry the beautiful and sexually naïve daughter of a high scholar. After persuading her sex being a cornerstone to a healthy marriage, she quickly concedes to his insatiable desires. Yet, the man wants more and decides to venture out into world seeking passionate sexual escapades and when he happens upon a distinguished scoundrel, who’s good at swordplay, martial arts, and as a carnal adviser, the man is schooled about his insignificant manhood needing to be the size of a horse’s. The obvious thing to do, transplant his penis with a horse’s. The comical insanity pursues from then on out with the man falling for not only the brutish fabric maker’s wife, but also a bisexual noblewoman with a jealous lady lover. When the scholar’s secret is found out, the jealous lover imprisons the man’s stay-at-home wife into prostitution, spearheaded by the seduction of the vengeful fabric maker posing as the house’s new gardener.
Attuned to the same idea as war and peace, “Sex and Zen” is a delicate balance of control between the two and the dire consequences suffered if the sanctity of matrimonial fidelity is not respected. Hailing from Hong Kong under the infamy of the Category III rating and with surprising staggering budget of approx. 4 million USD, director Michael Mak’s artfully erotic 1991 sex-comedy is by far one of the most entertaining of its genre ever to be produced into the world. Michael Mak, the director of the three sequels following the “Long Arm of the Law” after taking over the franchise from his brother Johnny Mak, helms a script penned by “To Be Number One” writers Alexander Lee and Ying-Chiet Lee, based loosely off the drama-tragedy novel “The Carnal Prayer Mat” by Yu Li. While definitely not a mirror dramatization of Li’s novel, “Sex and Zen’s” melodrama is in full-frontal effect with outlandish sex organ transferring and fiendish-flings and betrayals that make this slapstick an absolute riot. Raymond Chow’s Golden Harvest (“Game of Death,” “The Man from Hong Kong”) and Michael Mak’s brother’s company, Johnny Mak Productions,” build “Sex and Zen’s” luxurious sets and wardrobe, bright with colors and backed by phenomenal talent.
“Sex and Zen” is only as good in its absurdity as it’s actors and actresses and, fortunately, Lawrence Ng and Amy Yip, and amongst the others, infuse and imprint themselves to the carnally comically characters with pleasure. Ng (“The Underground Banker,” “Madame Q”) plays the travelling sex alcoholic husband Mei Yeung-Sheng to “Erotic Ghost Story’s” Amy Yip character, Huk-Yeung. Huk-Yeung is an in the closet nympho taught to be disgusted by sex from her father’s puritanical stance. Though Ng. and Yip’s scenes are few, they sizzle as explorers of each other’s bodies with Ng portraying shameless lust for the flesh against Yip’s innocent purity. When Mei Yeung-Sheng ventures out into the world seeking erotic flings, that’s when Kungfu superstar Lieh Lo (“Fiver Fingers of Death”) enters the fold as the famous masterful thief Choi Kun-Lun who not only steals from the rich and gives to the poor as a Robin Hood-esque martial arts bandit but also becomes the sexual advisor to a hapless Yeung-Sheng and his itsy-bitsy trouser snake problem. Lo’s hilariously cavalier and unpredictable in his performance that offers a divergent against the constant yearnings to follow the graphic depictions of pornographic picture art. The scholar becomes entangled with an abused fabric seller (Japanese-born actress Mari Ayukawa, “Groper Train Hurry Up and Come”) and, in consequence, the fabric seller’s husband Wong Chut, a ultra-physical ruffian played vigorously intensive by Elvis Tsui (“The Boxer’s Omen”), who has a vendetta against the scholar and has an affair with the scholar’s wife that leads to prostitution, frail health, and immense guilt in an parable about the misconduct of unchecked sexual liberties. “Sex and Zen” rounds out with a solid cast in Hong Kong comedian Kent Cheng (“Dr. Lamb”), Isabella Chow (“The Nocturnal Demon”), Carrie Ng (“Angel Terminators”), and Feng Tien (“Fist of Fury”) as the Sack Monk who warns about lust-induced karma that pulls the story into a full arc.
“Sex and Zen’s” mighty price tag is beyond being obvious with elaborately detailed set designs and structures, equally elegant and era appropriate wardrobe and makeup, elevated stunt work that blends highflying Kungfu with softcore eroticism, a physical and omnipresent choreography, and a few complicated shots, especially the one involving the back-and-forth editing of above and below the surface of a steamy hot tub sexual assault-to-fantasy fornication. The inexplicit story can be difficult to follow at times without much being conveyed to what the characters are doing, especially in the first act that jumps from a licentious Mei Yeung-Sheng debating with a temple-residing Sack Monk on the principles of polyamorous relationships, to the scholar fulfilling his engagement to and the slow deshelling into wanton exercises of the aristocracy daughter, to finally his sudden departure from her as he ventures out into the world for untamed carnal delights with strange women. From that point, “Sex and Zen” becomes a little more cohesive and coherent, building upon the scholars need for a bigger penis at the suggestion of his newfound friend Choi Kun-Lun and bedding the wife of a loutish fabric maker while paralleling a forbidden lesbian love affair of two stepsisters without the meddlesome of man in the mix. As Mei Yeung-Sheng and the lesbians’ paths collide, stiff and unforgiving karma catches up to each and every one of them with the welting sting of tit-for-tat cuckolding. Yet, Mak’s depiction of the story is wilder than the slapstick and melee humor with a stark contrast of, or maybe a complete overshadowing all together of, the perversion of foreign sex toys. From the hilt of a scroll brush to both ends of a golden flute (I’ll let that visual sink in), the women of “Sex and Zen” have a knack for insertion talents in this Hong Kong Cat III sideshow of debauchery and comedy.
Coming in at #2 on Umbrella Entertainment’s Sensual Sinema label, “Sex and Zen” lands on a sleek Blu-ray home video from the Australian distributor. Presented in a widescreen 1.85:1 aspect ratio, the “Sex and Zen” Umbrella Blu-ray has impeccable full high definition, 1080p quality that pops right off the screen. The original 35mm transfer has a healthy amount of good grain and the colors lavishly seize control over every scene with a full-bodied range of hues. Blacks are inky and unaffected by any major artefact issues and the skin shades are poor-riddles and hair-laden in every since of the detail spectrum. Umbrella’s Blu-ray offers two audio options with a Cantonese 5.1 DTS-HD master audio with optional English dub or a Cantonese 2.0 Dolby Digital stereo with optional English dub. The dubbed-dialogue overlay is slightly asynchronous with the image, but there’s robust dialogue amplification centralized out of the five channels coinciding with isolating individual ambient sounds, such the swooshing of the swordplay or the chains clinking during acrobatic coitus. Special features are a little slim and of yore for a second title on a new sublabel, but the release offers an achieved, English-subtitled interview with director Michael Mak diving into the budget, working with the actors, and creating certain scenes. The theatrical trailer is also available on special features. The hot pink Sensual Sinema cardboard slipcover has a retro impression with various posters of the film on the slip and the snapper case surrounded by also a hot pink border. The film is listed as region B coded but played on my region free player without issue, runs at 95 minutes and is rated R+ for high level sex scenes. “Sex and Zen” is, by far, one of the best and most fetishized sex comedies ever produced and though a notorious Hong Kong CAT III production, the film is absolutely riotous and one-of-a-kind, deserving of praise from hedonistic crowds around the globe.