Sex and Zen, released in 1991, is a totally ludicrous slice of Hong Kong cinema cheese, and something that deserves a wide furry audience.
The plot is simple enough: a moderately-endowed scholar has his member surgically replaced with a horse penis. He then proceeds to explore the benefits of his improved appendage by sleeping with a series of women, some of whom are married to other men. One of the cuckolded husbands seeks revenge by seducing the scholar’s wife.
And that’s basically it. It is incredibly silly and immensely entertaining.
The ‘zen’ aspect of the film refers to the revenge story. Essentially, our lustful scholar gets his comeuppance for his behaviour: he becomes blind and accidentally sleeps with his own wife, who by this stage is working in a brothel. She hangs herself in disgrace, which somehow counts as the scholar’s karmic redress. Frankly it’s a bit of a downer.
But don’t let that stop you from watching it, ideally with a group of inebriated furries. The acting and direction is gleeful—it is loads of fun. It’s notable for showing sex (and there is a lot of sex) as something fundamentally enjoyable. It’s refreshing in the light of the Western tendency for sex to be portrayed as emotional or intense, or the Japanese tendency for sex to be depicted as a kind of power struggle.
Sex and Zen it part of the grand tradition of Hong Kong pop cinema, which prioritises entertainment over realism. It’s the same philosophy that brought us the wave of unarmed martial arts films, with high watermarks being the best of the Jackie Chan films or (Australian co-production starring George Lazenby) The Man From Hong Kong. And, of course, Hong Kong pop cinema lives on with the films of Stephen Chow (Shaolin Soccer; Kung Fu Hustle) and others.
There is an argument that the best pop cinema nowadays come from the United States, with Quentin Tarantino as the standard-bearer. But while the Americans have co-opted the best aspects of Hong Kong cinema violence, they don’t seem to be culturally equipped to match the exploitative titillation of Hong Kong cinema sex. So while films like American Pie use the idea of flutes (at band camp) as a tittering punchline, the flute in Sex and Zen is shown to be put to good use.
Sex and Zen has spawned several sequels, although none appear to involve the original’s equine enhancement. It is possible that this may change in 2015, when 4D Sex & Zen: Slayer of a Thousand From the Mysterious East is released. (Plot synopsis: Two Japanese who sneak into ancient China, cause havoc and return to Japan where they engage in a sex marathon challenge.) At the time of writing, the involvement of a furry phallus in 4DSAZ: SOATFTME is unconfirmed.
Sex and Zen is based on a 17th century Chinese erotic novel of questionable quality, The Carnal Prayer Mat. The Carnal Prayer Mat is regarded as a minor classic of erotic literature, although this probably has more to do with its presumed author, playwright and essayist Li Yu (it was written under a pseudonym).
The Carnal Prayer Mat is the source of Sex and Zen‘s animal inspiration. The plot follows a lustful protagonist who enhances his virility with the help of a magician, who embeds a dog’s kidney into our hero’s penis. He then proceeds to have sexual liaisons with many married women, and one of the husbands seeks revenge.
The Carnal Prayer Mat has a clearer relationship to the idea of Zen and karma, and is seen by some as a Buddhist morality tale. Not everyone is so kind: others write off The Carnal Prayer Mat as mere pornography with limited literary value.
A brief, personal aside: I saw Sex and Zen years ago, well before I discovered furry. It’s slightly disquieting to think that it might have had an unconscious influence of my choice of species.
I rediscovered Sex and Zen while reading about food, specifically Chinese dishes that make use of animal penises. This isn’t really relevant to the first part of this article, other than perhaps giving you an unwelcome insight into how your humble author spends his weekends, but I did learn some slightly amazing facts. I present some highlights here, which you may find useful in future social events, perhaps when making chitchat with your grandparents, or to pass the time with strangers while waiting for a bus.
Factoid one: penises from Scottish stags that are shot for venison are all the rage in China. Apparently they are extremely valuable because “the Chinese go nuts for the penises of stags that roamed the pristine Scotland highlands.” They are dried before shipping.
Factoid two: animal penises are relatively well known as a ‘tonic’ ingredient in many parts of China, with supposed medicinal effects that are completely predictable. Unfortunately, a dish made by stewing penises in Shaoxing wine is not known as “cock au vin”. That’s a missed opportunity.
Factoid three: there is a penis restaurant in Beijing (Guo Li Zhuang). It’s a version of a restaurant that first opened in the Chinatown district of Atlanta, USA.
Factoid four: penis is, apparently, almost tasteless and has a texture variously described as gelatinous or rubbery. There is no significant difference in flavour between species.
For the curious, here is some further (and thoroughly entertaining) reading:
Sex and Zen is easy to find on DVD although it has only been released in Region 1 (North America). And presumably you can think of one or two other ways you might acquire an electronic copy. It’d be bandwidth well spent.
Finally, my apologies for the clickbaity title to this article. I honestly couldn’t think of anything better. I’d love to hear your suggestions for alternative titles in the comments below or @jmhorse over on Twitter.