I rented this sex comedy a couple of years ago and I was definitely not ready for the fantastic nature of its sex scenes. If you can imagine if the same techniques used for martial arts films applied to an erotic film, you might get a feeling of what this film is like. Sex and Zen is loosely based upon the 400-year old "The Carnal Prayer Mat" and is one of the best known of the Hong Kong Category III erotic films. The plot involves a scholar, played by Lawrence Ng, who believes that enlightenment can be achieved through a hedonistic lifestyle. For some reason, a wealthy man thinks that it is a good idea to arrange a marriage between the scholar and his sheltered, prudish daughter, played by Amy Yip. Yip was famous both for the size of her breasts and her refusal to perform fully nude; a body double is used in particular shots. After the scholar has introduced his new wife to the pleasures of sex, he is soon tempted by other men's wives. Unfortunately, his efforts to woo these women are hampered by both his poor staying power and his undersized genitals. In order to be a more effective seducer, the scholar agrees to undergo a rather extreme surgical procedure to enhance his abilities. Following the operation, the scholar undergoes a sexual odyssey while leaving his wife neglected at home.
This is a sex comedy and the humor can best be described as adolescent, although I must admit that I chuckled a few times. However, the film's raison d'etre is its lovemaking scenes. The sexual encounters in this film start out as "merely" vigorous and then escalate to the physically impossible and then to the gleefully excessive. What "The Blues Brothers" did for car crashes, this film does for sex scenes. There are several distinctions between this kind of filmmaking and Western erotic films. First of all, the women in Sex and Zen are stunningly, naturally attractive and don't have any silicone implants to detract from their beauty. Moreover, the film has significant production value. Whereas murky photography is used in sex scenes in most American films, here vivid colors are used in the art direction, costuming, and cinematography. As a result, the film has a surreal, fantastic sort of atmosphere. Sex and Zen also deviates from vanilla sexuality and includes elements of sadomasochism, lesbianism, and bondage, although all of this is carried out in a playful, nonrealistic manner. Also, like most erotic films, this is geared mostly towards heterosexual males but there is a bit of male nudity and simulated male genitalia for any women or gay males who might be interested.
Finally, a couple of caveats. An "R" rated version of this film can be found at many Blockbuster stores. Although this was enough to impress me on the first viewing, the editing was clumsy and the unrated film has much juicier comedic and erotic bits (such as misplaced genitals, an unorthodox way for two women to use a flute, an interesting bit of toe-sucking, etc.) The unrated VHS and DVD versions give you the full effect of the film. Also, there is a scene in which a man rapes his wife that is performed in the same surreal erotic manner as the rest of the film. Although this initially seems unenlightened, given the overall comic fantasy tone of the film, it's hard to be too offended. Overall, this is a well made piece of erotica recommended for those looking for something different.