Viewers may not necessarily be shocked to find Sex and Zen contains a lot of the former and not so much of the latter. Billed as an erotic sex comedy, and based very loosely on The Carnal Prayer Mat (a controversial 17th-century Chinese novel), Sex and Zen is a prime example of the famed “Cat III” genre of Hong Kong film. Think of the United States’ NC-17 rating but even more extreme. In fact, Sex and Zen is one of the most famous Cat III films from the rating’s heyday in the late 1980s and early 1990s, hence its new Region B release by Umbrella Entertainment under their Sensual Sinema sub-label.
The story follows Mei Yeung-sheng (Lawrence Ng), a lustful scholar who decides to fly in the face of advice from a kindly monk and prove that being a womaniser doesn’t clash with spiritual enlightenment. He quickly finds himself in a marriage with Huk-Yeung (the legendary Amy Yip), whom he must sexually satisfy. He’s not happy with just one woman, so he enlists the aid of a local bandit to learn how to, uh, sneak into women’s homes to sleep with them. Surprisingly the bandit is played by Lo Lieh, a Shaw Brothers veteran of King Boxer and the 36th Chamber of Shaolin, to name a few.
The film really kicks into gear when Mei Yeung-sheng undergoes surgery to graft a horse’s penis in place of his own. However, the following events of the plot lead in a very “be careful what you wish for” direction, and the film ends with that trademark Hong Kong suddenness that is pretty brutal to the characters. I guess the horse thing wasn’t a good idea.
Anyway, Sex and Zen really delivers on the first part of the title, and the filmmakers take their job very seriously with some of the wildest sex choreography ever captured on film. Not realistic, mind you. It’s also tongue-in-cheek and incredibly funny. You really haven’t laughed till you’ve seen an extended gag about an amputated member flying through the air into someone’s mouth. It’s crude, sure, but you’re probably open to that if you’re booting up a film promising sex and zen.
Honestly, Sex and Zen is likely one of the most audience-friendly Cat III classics and frankly a Hong Kong cinema staple. Its massive box office success launched an entire franchise, but none of them managed to live up to the first and a Google search reveals the others largely are straight pornography.
Umbrella’s edition is pretty bare-bones, featuring only an interview with director Michael Mak (though it is actually pretty enlightening how he even made this as a feature) and a simple theatrical trailer. Physically, Umbrella’s packaging is as nice as always. The presentation is in 1080p HD and reflects the good quality of similar presentations. Still, fans of the film will probably be happy to have it in an official release at all, regardless of extras.