Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Let’s Talk About Sex (and Zen 3D)

Sex and Zen 3D: Extreme Ecstasy is nothing new, and that’s okay.

It’s not Hong Kong’s first 3D film. Just last year, there was the Pang Brothers’ The Eye 3D and Yuen Woo-ping’s partial stereoscopic True Legend.

Nor is it the “world’s first 3D porn,” as it’s been touted. That it’s “porn” can be debated, as it’s a sequel/remake of a line of classic Sex and Zen films of the Category III genre. (Think Skinemax.) And in any case this trailer should put to rest any “world’s first” claims. (NSFW, though if you’re reading this post at work, it may already be too late.)

That Sex and Zen 3D is now being released theatrically in the United States is no revolution either. Back in the 1980s, Chinese-language movie theaters in Chinatowns and ethnoburbs like Monterey Park, California regularly played soft-core films from Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Japan alongside the latest Jackie Chan and Chow Yun-fat blockbusters, and theaters advertised their latest releases alongside ads for other adult entertainments like female mud wrestling:

In fact, the U.S. release of Sex and Zen 3D harkens back to an earlier time when Asian sex films quite successfully, though discretely, infiltrated the U.S. market and to some extent provided an alternative to a mainstream fervently renewing Yellow Peril images of Asian sexuality. These imports imagined an unrestrained, proud, modern Asian sexuality, to be consumed by Asians around the world. (Darrell Hamamoto could have taken some pointers.) It was also a time when imported pornography ran rampant: bookstores in California’s immigrant-heavy San Gabriel Valley had foreign-produced, smutty, strategically-covered color magazines out in the open, just feet from the Hello Kitty stationery.

With the rise of video and the internet, as well as larger (and arguably racist) civic pressures to close down the Chinese-language movie theaters, much of this alternative display of Asian sexuality went underground. For parents and community leaders, it was a relief to see the containment of foreign sexuality that challenged the status quo. Let’s not forget that similarly, the MPAA rating system was developed in the 1960s in part to control the influx of European “art” films that offered a different view of sexuality for the baby boom generation. There’s nothing more dangerous than an ideological revolution audiences are getting off on.

But Sex and Zen 3D, for all of its resemblances to the releases of that earlier time, is hardly a return of a revolution. The film is being released in North America by China Lion Entertainment, one of the most exciting ventures for Asian cinema in the history of American film exhibition. But whereas most of China Lion’s releases are partnerships with AMC Theaters (the kind of venue where most immigrant filmgoers see new releases today), the megaplex giant resisted when it came to a film that features nude torture and whose poster features waving tongues, bulging breasts, and an Asian man, eyes closed in ecstasy. Instead, the film has been released largely in art houses that worry little about MPAA certification, and in fact profit off of foreign kink, from Catherine Breillat to Like Water for Chocolate. And in case anyone was wondering, Asian immigrants rarely go to art houses.

So Sex and Zen 3D marks a turn from imported Category III by and for Asian audiences, to one in a cycle of imports meant to titillate both the mainstream body and the mainstream craving for the exotic erotic. Or a turn from Asian porn to Oriental porn, with its mysterious techniques and tantalizing, see-through ancient costumes. Which isn’t to say the film was that non-problematic before it was exoticized in the U.S. Like many of the 1980s films, and even some art cinema reworkings like Tsai Ming-liang’s The Wayward Cloud or Pang Ho-cheung’s AV, Sex and Zen 3D represents Chinese cinema’s own exotification of Japanese women. But such ethnic distinctions, with their own power dynamics which need to be teased out, get smeared in a U.S. context where Asian-fetish porn goes wildly unchecked and unproblematized. As an art house release, will Sex and Zen 3D profit from the hypersexualization and exotification of the Asian woman in American sex culture? Or will it, as Hong Kong’s most successful competitor against Hollywood in 2011, provide an alternative to that representation? We won’t know unless we talk about it.

Sex and Zen 3D comes out in San Diego on September 2 at the Reading Gaslamp and Reading Town Square Stadium theaters.


  1. Very strong and complex topic. Especially when thinking about how this answers Hollywood's hypersexualization of the Asian female.

  2. I think you may be reading a little too much into the casting of Japanese actresses ("Sex and Zen 3D represents Chinese cinema’s own exotification of Japanese women."). I'd venture to say it has more to do with the demise of the Category III film after Hong Kong went back to Chinese rule in 1997. No more HK actresses willing to disrobe on camera, thus they tap into the Japanese adult film industry.

    Category III films, even in their heyday, often tended to be too silly to be truly erotic. Or they would be too violent and misoygnistic ("Red to Kill" is a particularly nasty entry into the genre). Sex and Zen 3D (for those lucky enough to have two functioning eyes, unlike myself) displays both of these characteristics. It begins as a silly farce (A review in the SD Union Tribune hilariously describes a scene in the film as the "Odessa Steps sequence of premature ejaculation") and then turns into a harsh barrage of rape and torture. It's unfortunate they couldn't find a middle ground.