I must admit from the outset the subject matter of 3-D Sex and Zen: Extreme Ecstasy (2011) would not be my usual choice. However, this new exercise in erotica from veteran screen writer and producer Stephen Siu, his son Stephen Siu Jr., and director Christopher Sun Lap Key, though taking the subject of soft porn about as near to the limit as you can, is not the vacuous entertainment you usually get with western pornography.
Starring Chinese heartthrob Hiro Hayama, whose male beauty (he is a successful model amongst other things) outshines most of the female cast, and popular actresses Leni Lan and Vonnie Lui, what is billed as the world’s first ‘3D sex film’ has, surprisingly for this genre, a storyline which is actually quite good and not just there to fill in the gaps until the next orgy.
Ming Dynasty scholar Wei Yangshang (Hiro Hayama) marries the beautiful Tie Yuxiang (Lenin Lan). However, despite being madly in love with her, Wei Yangshang is unable to satisfy his new wife due to being under endowed in certain areas.
Believing that he has let her down he sets off with a friend to The Tower of Rarities, where the Prince of Ning (Tony Ho) keeps a treasure house of exoticism, including calligraphy, painting, antiques and a harem of beautiful women to serve his carnal desires. Humiliated when Ning and his friends discover his shortcomings, Wei Yangshang meets The Elder of Ultimate Bliss (Vonnie Lui), who helps him develop certain more manly attributes and eventually win back the love of his wife.
There is a fine line between ‘eroticism’ and ‘pornography’, and in the same way as a naked woman in Playboy is considered demeaning to women, yet in a high fashion magazine like Vogue is called art, there are ultimately two ways of viewing 3-D Sex and Zen: Extreme Ecstasy.
As a period, martial arts, adventure the film is stunning. The costumes, when there are any, are exquisite and the acting is enough that your attention never wanes. The fight sequences as well, which be warned are considerably more gruesome than you might expect, are on a par with more mainstream martial arts films like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000).
Eroticism, by its very definition, is subtle and romantic. Though the film’s central storyline certainly has a strong romantic core, mainly in the theme of Wei Yangshang and Tie Yuxiang’s relationship and enduring love, there is very little subtlety, particularly when it come to the gratuitous sex scenes which do neither the male nor female protagonists any favours.
A torture sequence towards the climax involving a gyrating metal horse and a mechanical lotus blossom is particularly toe curling, whilst the film’s portrayal of women as mere sexual chattels and secondary citizens and men as the superior participant in all relationships, both intimate and platonic, though likely authentic to the period and culture, will be as distressing to many modern audiences as the sexual proclivities of the characters.
Ultimately, what might have a reasonable way to pass a couple of hours, is a somewhat confusing mix of martial arts adventure and pornographic voyeurism, which no amount of ‘eastern philosophy’, 3D gimmickry or (I presume) unintended comedic elements can save. The result really serves to titillate neither hedonists nor the more conservative viewer.