Just as India has the Kama Sutra, so too does China have a legacy of ancient erotic literature. Among these titillating texts, the seventeenth century classic Prayer Mat of Flesh was adapted several times for the screen, most infamously as Sex & Zen (1991). Aided by a pictorially extravagant promotion in the pages of Penthouse magazine no less, this classy (no, really) period production became an international sensation and made silicone starlet Amy Yip an instant icon of Hong Kong’s Category III (their equivalent of an x-rating) sex film craze. Five years later, legendary schlock producer Wong Jing made this elaborate sequel, which is sexier and funnier and as a bonus launched a drop-dead gorgeous future art-house star on an award-winning career.
Opening with truly tasteless narration (“The real message behind Sex and Zen is you get happy raping other men’s wives. But what if your’s gets raped?”), part deux concerns Sai Moon-Gin (Category III perennial Elvis Tsui), a lusty local official in seventeenth century China who field tests his super-strong member weightlifting watermelons and playing tug-of-war with a bull till he rips the poor beast’s pizzle clean off! This horny bastard enjoys abusing his position and stealing other men’s wives to add to his collection of comely concubines, available for nightly sex romps or decorating their private parts to pose in his gallery of avant-garde flesh sculptures. His lovely daughter, Sai Moon-Yau (Loletta Lee), is a virtuous girl, aghast at his excesses but smart enough to know a woman needs an education, in intellectual and worldly matters, to avoid sinking in a world run by chauvinist pigs. In time honoured tradition, she decides to disguise herself as a boy to study at a nearby school. Before that, Moon-Yau’s fretful father outfits her with a hi-tech chastity belt that will slice’n’dice any unfortunate lecher out to grope his little girl.
At school, where the sex-happy scholars hold contests to see who can ejaculate the farthest (!), Moon-Yau grows smitten with fellow student Tat-Tau (Ken Lok Daat-Wa). One night he spies her masturbating whilst fantasizing about him and thus discovers her secret. Unfortunately, in the heat of passion, Moon-Yau’s cock-chopping chastity belt does its job. Ouch! On the advice of their teacher, the luckless lovers consult famed medicine man the Happy Taoist (Wong Yat-Fei), who says Tat-Tau has three options. He can either go gay, become a transexual or get outfitted with a state of the art mechanical member. The Happy Taoist merrily demonstrates its thirty-six different uses. It spins! It extends! It sprays an array of ingenious toxins and fluids in five fruity flavours! It even sprouts rotor blades besides other useful transformations! No contest, really. That is the option for Tat-Tau.
In the middle of surgery, Happy Taoist has an unexpected visitor in the shapely form of Mirage Lady (Shu Qi), a sultry, otherworldly beauty in flowing red silks who offers sexual favours in return for his prized copy of a mystical sex manual called “Secret of Virginity.” Outside in the waiting yard, Moon-Yau meets Officer Ironman (Ben Ng Ngai-Cheung), who holds allegiance to neither Black Sabbath nor Marvel Comics, but is pursuing Mirage Lady, whom it transpires is actually an evil demonic mistress of the esoteric art of “energy sucking.” Basically, she gains power by draining the life force out of victims, male and female, during sexual intercourse. Our heroes arrive to find the Happy Taoist is now a post-coital corpse. Shortly thereafter, Moon-Yau discovers the exquisite young maiden sold in marriage to her own brother is none other than Mirage Lady...
The key factors elevating upmarket erotica above standard smut are: wit and style. Sex & Zen II has both in abundance. Cash Chin Man-Kei, the director behind the similarly delirious sexploitation-horror-fantasy Eternal Evil of Asia (1995), mimics the floating camerawork, artful editing and intoxicating cinematography associated with A Chinese Ghost Story (1987) and its sequels/imitators, while the tone switches from comedy to softcore porn and gross-out horror with even a few martial arts scenes thrown in, exhibiting imaginative flair.
This being a Golden Harvest movie the production values are sumptuous, wedded to a typically tasteless Wong Jing scenario that is ribald but literate. The plot is a bawdy take-off on Butterfly Lovers, a popular literary romance filmed to critical acclaim but low box-office as The Lovers (1995) by Tsui Hark and high box-office but critical disdain as Butterfly Lovers (2008) by Jingle Ma. Sex & Zen II features jokes alluding to classical literature, poetry and historical figures, alongside the expected dick and boob gags. What is more, dare one say it, but there is even a discernable feminist agenda lurking beneath all that soft-core groping. After all, Sai Moon-Yau is an assertive, confident young lady determined to take charge of her own destiny and sexuality. At one point, she selflessly offers her sexual services to Officer Ironman after he is infected by a poison that will make his penis explode lest he does the deed. Talk about defusing that bomb. Unlike old Shaw Brothers sexploitation-horrors like Bewitched (1981), the film does not feel the need to hypocritically moralize about the evils of sex after wallowing in sleaze for an hour and a half. Our heroine goes on a sexual odyssey without having to suffer for it because the film acknowledges she is still the same, fundamentally decent human being.
As the plot progresses, the despicable Sai Moon-Gin grows so incensed watching his son’s poor performance in bed, he forces himself on his own daughter-in-law. Thereafter Moon-Gin falls under the spell of Mirage Lady’s supernatural lovemaking whilst she secretly abducts each of his concubines into her infernal dimension and shags them to death in her guise as a multi-tentacled monster. These tentacle porn scenes suggest Wong Jing was part influenced by infamous anime horror porn epics like Wicked City (1987) and Urotsukidoji: Legend of the Overfiend (1987). “Energy sucking” is actually a genuine aspect of Taoist tantric sex practices. Ancient manuals advise mature men to increase their health and vitality by having sex with as many nubile young women as possible, the younger the better. No doubt such tomes were most likely penned by dirty old geezers looking for an excuse to score with hot young things.
Wong Jing cranked out another sequel, Sex & Zen III (1998) but post-handover in the late Nineties the genre was forced underground with cheap rip-offs like Sex & Zen - The Prostitute in Jiang Nan (2002). Given Mainland Chinese censors were far stricter than their British predecessors, most expected the Category III period sex film would stay dead until the unexpected happened. None other than Cash Chin Man-Kei revived big budget historical porn romps with The Forbidden Legend: Sex & Chopsticks (2008), a lavish Chinese-Japanese co-production proving conclusively that mainlanders were as randy as their Hong Kong counterparts. Never one to miss out on a sure thing, Wong Jing got back in the game and scored box office gold with, what else, but 3D Sex & Zen - Extreme Ecstasy (2011), the movie that infamously dethroned Avatar (2010) from the top of the movie charts.
By far Sex & Zen II’s most celebrated set-piece - and possibly among the most celebrated in the entire Category III genre - is the climactic girl-on-girl Taoist sex battle between then-reigning genre queen Loletta Lee and up-and-comer (so to speak) Shu Qi, wherein who cums first, dies in extreme ecstasy. These stunning starlets go at it with wild abandon, romping through the A to Z of positions in an MTV montage of billowing silks, flickering candles and silken skin, until... boom! All prurience aside, Loletta Lee delivers a genuinely great comic performance and remains one of the few sex film starlets to enjoy a parallel, even respectible career in serious movies. However, Sex & Zen II’s ace in the hole was Shu Qi, who went on to become the biggest star to ever break out of Category III films. Considering how conservative Chinese culture often is, Shu Qi’s achievements are all the more remarkable.
Through a killer combination of good looks and genuine acting talent, she went from posing in Penthouse and Playboy to working with art-house auteurs like Derek Yee and Stanley Kwan. You might know her from a thankless girlfriend role opposite Jason Statham in The Transporter (2002), but Shu Qi won best actress awards for Viva Erotica (1996) and the remarkable Three Times (2005), served on the jury at the Cannes film festival and has consistently proven herself a major talent. But it all started with some racy magazine spreads and Sex & Zen II.