Watching this outrageous Hong Kong movie brings back memories of two genres absent from Australian mainstream cinemas since the mid '70s: soft core porn, decked out with lavish production values, as in the Emmanuelle series; and knockabout, childlike humour, such as used to appear in Terence Hill's comedy-westerns.
Anyone who has seen even a little Chinese popular cinema in recent decades will be well acquainted with the burlesque aspect. The erotic component is more unusual. It is cushioned by a thick layer of historical-art-film pomposity. The opening credits solemnly inform us that the movie is based on a celebrated 17th century novel, The Carnal Prayer Mat.
Within minutes, proceedings dip into broad comedy. A young Buddhist scholar (Lawrence Ng, mugging like crazy) decides to explore the outer reaches of sexual pleasure. After initiating his shy wife (Amy Yip) he travels and becomes obsessed with another, less obtainable woman (Isabella Chow).
Only one thing stands in the way of our hero's conquests: the smallness of his member. He decides to get it surgically replaced with a horse's penis. The operation is the comic highpoint of the film, with director Michael Mak piling on one ridiculous gag after another.
The sex scenes, which take up a goodly proportion of the movie, are bizarre and extremely athletic. I was especially impressed by the variety of objects against which female nipples are brushed, rubbed and scraped during coitus. It should also be noted for connoisseurs of screen erotica that this and Color of Night (1994) make a good double bill if one is seeking the spectacle of underwater sex.
The combination of raunchiness and silliness is likely to disconcert viewers familiar only with the po-faced libertinage of French sex movies. The cartoonish sound effects accompanying the least action – from mutual buttock-slapping to fellatio – are also, shall we say, off-putting.
But in other respects Sex and Zen plays strictly by the rules of Western screen erotica. The events of the story are incongruously overlaid with a pious lesson about moral behaviour – that's the Zen part of the title – in a vain attempt to render its soft porn perfectly respectable. And no matter what wild sexual permutation appears, straight, gay or group, one law remains inviolate: never photograph the male sex organ. Not even when it protrudes from a horse.
© Adrian Martin March 1995