Sex and Zen (Rou Pu Tuan Zhi Tou Qing Bao Jian)
Director – Michael Mak, Screenplay – Lee Ying Kit, Based on the Book The Carnal Prayer Mat by Li Yu, Producer – Stephen Siu, Photography – Peter Ngor, Music – Joe Chan, Production Design – Raymond Lee. Production Company – Golden Harvest/Johnny Mak Productions
Lawrence Ng (Mei Yan Ching), Amy Yip (Chao Yin), Lo Lieh (Choi Kam Yan), Carrie Ng (Madam Ku), Isabella Chow (Chi Shiu), Kent Cheng (Dr Tin Chang)
In the Jiu Dynasty, the scholar Mei Yan Ching takes a stand against Buddhist puritanism, arguing with the masters in favour of complete sexual freedom. After taking a wife Chao Yin, the daughter of a well-to-do man, he leaves on a mission of proselytism. His erotic adventures are frustrated when one woman laughs at him for only having a one-and-a-half inch penis. He persuades an unconventional doctor to transplant the penis from a donkey onto him. However, his erotic adventures leave him the tortured sex slave of a magistrate’s wife. Meanwhile, the sexually frustrated Chao Yin has been trying to find satisfaction in different areas. After being raped and left pregnant, she is sold as a courtesan.
Loosely based on the Chinese erotic tale The Carnal Prayer Mat (published in 1634), this Hong Kong production is one of the most witty and enjoyable films to emerge from that country. It is a work of full-blown erotica, something that is relatively rare in mainstream cinema. This is not cheap, badly lit video footage shot in someone’s bedroom from three angles at once – Sex and Zen has top production values and is gorgeously lit. It even has a story.
Some of the sequences on display are breathtaking in their eroticism – like the sequence where a woman places morsels of food inside herself and masturbates the hero with a loaf of bread; or that of the hero’s wife painting Chinese characters using a paintbrush placed inside her vagina; and in one extraordinary sequence two women pleasing themselves together, humping buttock to buttock using a flute placed in their mutual vaginas.
Moreover, the film has the courage to balance its erotica out with humour. This comes in the frothy, dizzy style characteristic of Hong Kong cinema. The penis transplant sequence is an hilarious comedy of mishaps – the difficulties in knocking the donkey out in time, the doctor accidentally anaesthetising his own hands, a storm coming that turns the doctor into a maniac, the severed donkey’s penis being sent flying and impaling itself in the servant’s mouth, the dog eating the hero’s penis after it has been removed. With its free and light-hearted attitude, Sex and Zen has a lack of self-consciousness in its erotica that easily puts the guilt-ridden sensationalism of American contemporaries such as Basic Instinct (1992) and Color of Night (1994) to shame. The film does lecture the hero about the Buddhist cycle of karma at the end for his selfish ways but the tone is clearly unserious.
There was a sequel Sex & Zen II (1996) but this fairly much abandoned connection to this film, becoming a much more overtly fantastical film with characters facing demonic sex-changing chameleons. This was followed by a further unrelated entry Sex and Zen III (1998), which contains no fantasy elements and is regarded as the weakest of the series. The series was rebooted several years later with Sex and Zen: Extreme Ecstasy (2011), which is in fact a remake of this film.