The 2011 Hong Kong International Filmart saw the premiere of a home-grown Hong Kong 3D movie, one that would beat the opening day grosses of everything Avatar to Titanic, a film that would take in over 25 million at the local box office, becoming one of the highest grossing Hong Kong movies of the year and would go onto become a cult hit across the world, with cinematic release in Australia, North America and England amongst other countries.
That film was of course Sex & Zen Extreme Ecstasy, an adaptation of the classic novel The Carnal Prayer Mat; the film follows a young Ming dynasty scholar on an eye opening journey of sexual discovery.
The film produced by Stephen Siu, executive producer of the original Sex & Zen, was directed by Christopher Sun who is currently one of three directors working on the new 3D reworking of another classic Hong Kong movie of the late 80’s, Iceman Cometh starring Donnie Yen. Forces of Geek’s Man from Hong Kong Mike Leeder leaps into the world of Asian Extreme and talks to the film’s director about Sex, Zen and more…
Sex & Zen: Extreme Ecstasy is a worthy re-imagining of the original Sex & Zen, with several of the classic scenes from the original being given a 3D make-over, it’s not pornographic, its more than a little out there at times, but it’s great fun, yes there’s nudity, sex, violence, kung fu and with the added bonus of 3D it’s all in your face! But there are also some nice moments of humour, a great looking cast, and some very impressive production values and most importantly it does bring back the spirit of classic anything goes Hong Kong cinema which has been tempered for too much in recent years as so many film-makers focus on the China market, and accept the restrictions that imposes. Now let’s let Christopher Sun begin by telling us how the project evolved…
Christopher Sun: I was working in the world of commercials before this film, I was born & raised in Hong Kong but was educated in the UK. I returned to Hong Kong and was working in the industry, doing commercials and promotional films, developing my special effects and post-production company. I wanted to make the move into directing feature films but I wasn’t sure of what kind of project would help me make the leap.
I knew that Stephen Siu Senior & his son Stephen Siu junior were looking for projects, and we discussed working together. Stephen Senior has produced and written so many classic Hong Kong movies including To be Number One, Royal Tramp 1 & 2, King of Beggars, Iceman Cometh, Tragic Hero, Rich & Famous and of course the original Sex & Zen with Amy Yip. We looked at various projects and felt that a remake of Sex & Zen in 3D would be a great way to make a splash, so we began developing the script with myself set as director.
FOG: How do you draw the line between erotica and pornography?
From the start we knew we weren’t setting out to make a real ‘pornographic’ movie, we’re doing something that’s for entertainment, it’s not real hardcore and we knew that from the start, yes there will be nudity and simulated sex, but it’s not real intercourse, not really graphic.
We try to make the story telling work which for me is crucial to film-making; we focused a lot of time on the story and put a lot of time and effort into creating good 3D. We did a lot of research on the technology and equipment, and found a way to use it in our own cinematic language.
Also we know that we have to deal with censorship issues, censorship exists in different forms in every country, and they each have a different moral approach and different standards for censorship. The Hong Kong Cat 3 rating is quite tame compared to some countries with regards to sexual situations, but we also knew that for countries like Singapore for instance we’d need to prepare a tamer version, so we shot alternate footage for some sequences so that we could present them with a less raunchy version that didn’t just make no sense with cuts to the sexual element, but even though the print we submitted to Singapore was tamer than the HK version, their censors cut it by several more minutes or so before they’d let us release it there. The Korean version is also cut somewhat, they seem more severe on imported films with regards to sexual elements etc than they are to their own films, I think the Taiwanese cut is probably the most graphic and extreme in terms of both sex & violence, they seem to understand the reasoning behind scenes and let it pass.
Nudity and sexual situations can be quite an issue for Hong Kong & Chinese actresses & actors to contend with, especially the supposed stigma that is placed upon people for appearances in Cat 3 films. Despite having only done a few cat 3 movies at the start of her career, and since developing into a very solid actress, Shu Qi for instance is still too often referred to as a former porn-star and the recent events surrounding actress Tang Wei’s career stalling after her appearance in the acclaimed Lust & Caution, can’t have made casting the easiest task.
Yes casting was quite a process, sometimes Hong Kong & China seem very conservative about nudity, there are a lot of actresses and models who are willing to appear in bikinis or lingerie for photo shoots etc, but very few who are willing to do nudity, let alone nudity with sexual situations. We had meetings with a number of well known actresses & models about the possibility of them being involved in the film, and despite some often very positive meetings where we’d talk about the film and where we wanted to go with regards for the nudity and sexual content, the final decision was never in our favour. We knew from the outset that the movie was probably never going to get any kind of official release in Mainland China, but a lot of people felt that even appearing in the film could badly affect their market on the mainland in a negative way.
So we broadened the scope of our casting across Asia and got in touch with a number of Adult actresses from Japan, for who nudity etc wouldn’t be an issue. We flew several of them in for meetings before we made our final decisions and hired Saora Hara, Yukio Suo & Naami Haseghawa for three of the roles. We were very lucky when we found Leni Lan Yan who plays the heroes wife in the movie. She’s a Mainland Chinese actress and model, she comes from a serious acting background but was very open-minded, she completely understood there would be nudity and love scenes, but was willing to take the opportunity to be involved in the film. The hardest role to cast of the females was the Elder of Bliss character, it’s hard to get actresses who are willing to be exposed, let alone play an ancient transsexual.
We’d already met with Vonnie Lui, and we’d discussed the role and she did seem to be interested, so we discussed making the role more important and eventually Vonnie said yes. She’s western educated, and I think she liked the challenge of playing such a role and was willing to do the nudity. I also think that she felt a role like this would get a lot of attention and help put her in the spotlight, which it certainly has.
For the male roles it was also quite a challenge, it’s not like the 90’s when you have actors like Simon Yam, Anthony Wong & Elvis Tsui who were the Kings of Category 3, and willing to jump from serious films to genre films like this, it’s hard to find actors who are willing to show their body and can also handle dialogue and drama. A lot of people we spoke to, turned us down straight away, we were quite lucky when veteran actor Tony Ho agreed to come onboard that gave us some credibility but we were still having problems finding the male lead.
Then we found Hayama Go/Hiro Hayama, he’s a Japanese actor but has lived in Hong Kong, he speaks Mandarin and has a good understanding of Chinese culture. He’d appeared in movies like New Police Story & The Shinjuko Incident, but hadn’t really had the breakout role he was looking for. We met with him, and felt that he had the good looking scholarly look that we wanted, and we discussed the character, the situations we would be placing him in, we did a full translation of the script into Japanese so everything would be clear and he said yes and came on board to play the character Wei Yangsheng.
You shot the film in 3D using the Red One camera? How did you enjoy shooting 3D, are you a big 3D fan?
Yes, we shot in HD on the Red One camera, we used two of them and I really like the results. I think we were able to achieve a lot considering our budget and while I do wish that we’d been able to do some real exterior locations as opposed to being restricted to all interiors, it did allow us to fully control the lighting and environment to our benefit. We also got to use the smaller Epic camera for a few scenes, but not for 3D elements as we had some issues with stabilizing the rigs for them properly.
I like 3D if it’s done right, and for the right project, I don’t like the films that are shot flat and then they try to make them 3D in post production, you need to plan for 3D, if you are going to do it in post, you still need to have shot it in the right way so the 3D process works, you can’t just put 3D sprinkles on everything. I think that’s why audiences aren’t responding as strongly to 3D films sometimes, because they’re not real 3D films, they’ve been put through the process and sometimes because of the composition or editing, the 3D drops in and out so it’s hard for the viewer to accept the 3D elements.
Look at Avatar, Cameron planned the movie to be 3D that’s why it works so well, in 3D. Even Avatar, I like it, I’ve watched it about 15 times or so because I like the way its shot, but it seems to lose its way at times, the middle section is more like watching a National Geographic documentary than a movie.
Were you surprised by how well the film did both locally and the international response?
I thought the film would do well, but I didn’t really think it would do as well as it did locally, let alone with the international response. When we previewed the film at the Hong Kong Filmart in March, the majority of world rights were quickly picked up which was good for us, but then the film started to break records both locally and internationally when it was released in Australia for instance, that made us feel very happy. It’s not the greatest film of all time, there are things I feel we could have done differently, but its entertaining and I think that’s one of the reasons people like it, it’s not trying to be the most serious film, you go you see it, you forget your troubles for the time you’re watching it.
Of course there was some negative feedback, some of which was understandable; I think a lot of people felt that they should have seen more of some of the girls, especially Vonnie Lui…
Ah yes, the controversy over Vonnie Lui’s exposure in the film, the way the scene in which she removes her top is shown, it’s a little confusing…
(Laughing) That’s the scene, they really were Vonnie’s breasts that we see, but I do understand where the confusion came from, the way the scene is cut together in the finished version isn’t the way I wanted to show them.
You probably remember that from day one, Stephen Siu had been talking about how the film would show ‘breasts 3 stories high!’ and that’s the scene he decided we should do the specific shot of the breasts to deliver upon that promise.
Now Vonnie knew from day one that she would be exposing herself in that scene, and originally I was going to do a tracking shot where we approach her as she takes her top off but Stephen wanted the shot of the breasts and decided we should go with the insert and while it delivers the shot he promised, it does leave people confused and I know a lot of people criticised Vonnie about the scene and accused her of misleading the audience, and not revealing her true self, that they were CGI breasts, that it was a body double..but it’s not, it’s really her!
I do agree that I wish we had been able to get Vonnie to reveal herself more in the movie, to show off more of her body, to be more involved in the love scenes, that’s what people wanted to see, people want to see more of Vinnie, (Laughing)me too actually!
Was there anything that you wanted to put in the movie that you couldn’t?
There was one moment I was pushing for, but everybody told me it was just too extreme. I wanted there to be a moment in the orgy scene, where one of the girls would basically lactate and there’d be milk coming down all over Hiro and the others, I just had this idea of a mad moment with milk flowing over everybody, but I think my description of what I wanted to do was too much for the other producers and the idea ended up getting dropped. There are a few things I wish we could have done differently, I do wish that Vonnie had been more involved in some of the love scenes, that’s something that I agree with the audience on, that we should have seen more of her…but I like the film.
One moment I really like, is the moment where Hiro has had the ahem transplant and we see him strutting down the corridor looking very confident and full of himself, with what sounds like the Kill Bill theme playing…
Yes! (Laughing) that’s very much a Kill Bill reference, I wanted something musically to show he was now the confident man, that he felt the penis transplant had completed him..and the Kill Bill theme just seemed perfect for that. The basic premise, a man having a horses penis transplanted so he can become what he thinks is a real man, that’s funny…why not make a joke about it…
Sex & Zen: Extreme Ecstasy is one of the few Hong Kong movies to hit the big screen in the East and West, with the film going theatrical in such territories as Australia, North America and the UK. It’s rare to see a Hong Kong movie especially from the erotic genre getting such an international release. How do you feel about it and the way the film has been received overseas?
I’m excited, it’s incredible for me as a first time director to have made a film, that so many people dismissed as ‘oh he’s making a sex film’ get such good success both locally, and also internationally. I am excited about the UK & American releases, I think international audiences have a much more open mind about sexuality and erotica, a film like Lust & Caution for instance is regarded as an artistic film, whereas in Asia a lot of people only focus on the erotic element. I think the international success of the original Sex & Zen movie came as a surprise to a lot of people, it received a lot of attention internationally and I am happy that the feedback has been positive from our buyers and audiences internationally.
What’s next for Christopher Sun?
There’s a number of projects I’m discussing, but it’s too early to really say just what one will be next. I’ve actually been talking to Jackie Chan about one film, that’s quite an experience, to be able to talk to Jackie and discuss ideas, exchange information, experiences about how to achieve certain things in a film, I traveled to visit him on set just so we could talk when he’s having a lunch break, when they’re setting up a shot and he has a few minutes,
I really respect Jackie as a film-maker, he’s done so much, he really came from nothing, he was a Peking Opera student turned stuntman, no real education, and he’s gone on to become a writer, a director and one of the biggest stars in the whole world, he’s someone I really admire, and it’s great to be able to talk to him about projects.
My current project is another remake, it’s a reworking of Clarence Ford’s Iceman Cometh which originally starred Yuen Biao, and I’m one of the directors on the remake, alongside Donnie Yen who will also handle the films action choreography. I’m excited to be doing another 3D movie and one that might get a more mainstream audience, I think this time we can release the film in China too!
Sex & Zen: Extreme Ecstasy was released in North America by China Lion theatrically with a DVD/Blu-Ray release to follow shortly, and by Metrodome in the UK who released the film both theatrically and onto DVD & Blu-Ray.