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MOVIE REVIEW : 'Sex and Zen': Outrageous Look at the Perils of Excess

August 13, 1993|KEVIN THOMAS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The amusingly titled "Sex and Zen" (at the Monica 4-Plex) concentrates lots more on the former than on the latter, which is saved for the very last.

An elegant and erotic comedy adapted from Li Yu's Ming Dynasty novel "The Carnal Prayer Mat," it is strictly for ultra-sophisticated adults and is an exceedingly deft blend of outrageous sex and equally outrageous humor.

Without our realizing what is happening, this singularly sly film gradually evolves from sex farce to cautionary tale underlined by increasingly dark humor. In short, its libertine hero, Mei Yang (Lawrence Ng), proves to have more in common with St. Augustine than we would have ever suspected.

No sooner has the handsome, rakish Mei Yang awakened his beautiful but comically reluctant bride, Yuk Heung (Amy Yip), to the pleasures of sex than he abandons her for a life of determined womanizing.

When a mentor tells him that he's not properly equipped for such a career, he submits to primitive transplant surgery in a sequence of brilliantly sustained hilarity. Thus armed, however, he succumbs to sex so compulsively that a day of reckoning could be lurking ahead--also for his having treated his wife with such total neglect.

As a period piece "Sex and Zen" is gorgeous-looking, as are its actresses, and director Michael Mak, working from Lee Ying Kit's script, flirts with but never quite lapses into hard-core territory while building up considerable steam.

Its heavy-duty sensuality, however, cannot distract us from the cruelty and decadence of its era--a time when women were chattel without recourse to brutal husbands, when their only hope of self-defense was beauty combined with formidable sexual wizardry.

The film's contemporary sensibility, furthermore, allows us to see the vulnerable, self-destructive underside of extreme machismo. Indeed, "Sex and Zen," as hot as it is, is steeped in a sense of the absurdity of sex divorced from love or affection.

As a director, Mak must have a remarkable capacity for inspiring a trust in his actors that would permit them to appear in one uninhibited scene after another; to his credit, he never makes fools of them--and he furthermore gets terrific performances from them in the most potentially embarrassing situations.

"Sex and Zen" (Times-rated Mature for sex and nudity) is a wise and risque treat for the truly grown-up, but remember to leave the kids at home.

'Sex and Zen'

Lawrence Ng: Mei Yang

Amy Yip: Yuk Heung, his wife

Kent Chung: Kuen the Silk Merchant

Isabella Chow: Kuen's wife

A Rim Films release of a Golden Harvest presentation of a Johnny Mak production. Director Michael Mak. Producer Stephen Siu. Screenplay by Lee Ying Kit; adapted from Li Yu's novel "Yu Ou Tuan" ("The Carnal Prayer Mat"). Cinematographer Peter Ngor. Editor Poon Hung. Music Chan Ka-Leung. Art director Raymond Lee. Sound Kwon Wai-Hung. In Cantonese, with English and Chinese subtitles. Running time: 1 hour, 54 minutes.

Times-rated Mature (for sex and nudity).

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