Back last March, in one of my several posts discussing the pros and cons of 3D, I wrote a brief piece entitled Welcome to the Feelies, inspired by Kenta Fukasaku’s recently-released part-3D erotic thriller Perfect Education: Maid For You. Not even 18 months on and already Fukasaku’s film seems like a dim and distant memory, and quite rightly so one might add, but nevertheless one which it is perhaps worth invoking as Metrodome sits poised to release the Hong Kong production of 3D Sex & Zen: Extreme Ecstasy theatrically across the UK from 2 September.
This new film is interesting in a number of respects, not least in that after the deluge of CGI cartoons and post-produced horror and action movies from the commercial mainstream last year, 2011 has so far seen the release of two noteworthy 3D titles produced outside of Hollywood which have managed to compete successfully in the specialist arthouse market for subtitled films and documentaries. I’m thinking, of course, of Cave of Forgotten Dreams and Pina, both of which were originally conceived of as 3D projects and which attempted to harness the added illusionary senses of depth and volume permitted by the format in a different way than, for example, the 3D mainstream studio releases of this year. You’ll be able to watch the likes of Thor or The Green Hornet ‘flat’ on DVD without losing too much of what was intended from the experience, but I don’t think one can honestly say the same for Werner Herzog’s or Wim Wenders’ films, where 3D is integral to the diegesis.
This suggests that, to cite but the one example of the UK’s 19-venue strong arthouse chain Picturehouse (the company also programmes 36 “independent” venues), the exhibition sector sees a future in 3D cinema that goes beyond it being a mere bolt-on gimmick aimed at adding a further layer of lustre to otherwise generic popcorn releases. It also demonstrates that we’re now in an era, unlike the 1950s when the format was first introduced into the mainstream, where 3D production technology isn’t necessarily the exclusive reserve of the capital-rich major studios (although one should note that Bwana Devil was an independent production).
Of course, we’re still getting the usual guff from anti-3D lobby that the medium is beginning to lose its box-office pulling power. A recent article in The Economist entitled ‘Flat expectations: 3D films, cinema’s great hope, have become niche products’ states that ‘Four of the past five 3D blockbusters—“Pirates of the Caribbean”, “Kung Fu Panda 2”, “Green Lantern” and “Harry Potter”—made more money from 2D screens on their opening weekend than from 3D ones.’ It’s worth looking at the wording here, particularly the emphasis on ‘opening weekend’, because a recent article on the latest Pirates of the Caribbean instalment, On Stranger Tides, in the July 2011 edition of Screen International, states that the film, which has already entered the top 10 worldwide grossers of all time, “has made approximately 64% of its international gross from 3D screens.” Even with straightforward Hollywood films, the novelty hasn’t quite worn off.
But it is perhaps in the indie/arthouse sector, far more prone to taking risks than Hollywood and a market in which the majority of viewers prefer to watch films in cinemas rather than home alone, where we’re going to see the most interesting developments in 3D cinema, as Picturehouse must have realised when they acquired Cave of Forgotten Dreams to distribute themselves in the UK (see Screen Daily article here). I should emphasise, I use the word ‘interesting’ in its broadest sense, regardless of the artistic merits of the films in question. What I personally am finding fascinating are the trends in production and distribution of these films in the face of how the evolution of a new cinematic aesthetic is being brought about by developments in its technology, and how this intersects with audiences at the point of exhibition. As I’ve said on numerous occasions, stereoscopic digital 3D might not be the future of cinema, but it is a future of cinema.
As a subtitled film, 3D Sex & Zen already counts as minority interest in English-language markets, although Metrodome’s press notes emphasise the film’s prior successes of sell-out opening weeks in Hong Kong, New Zealand and Australia, and the film taking over $1.1 million on just 6 screens in Australia alone. Of course, there are few genres with greater crossover potential than Orientalist sex movies, you hardly need to tell me that, and the third dimension is hardly going to hamper the film’s box-office potential.
Still, in terms of ambition as much as execution, 3D Sex & Zen, directed by Christopher Suen, is not only poles apart from the two German auteurs’ recent 3D tryouts, but also from previous milestones in intellectual exotica such as Nagisa Oshima’s In the Realm of the Senses (1976), Peter Greenaway’s The Pillow Book (1996) or even Mira Nair’s Kama Sutra: A Tale of Love (1996). If there was more tittering than genuine titillation in the screening room where I caught a press showing of the film, that’s probably because behind the period detail and sumptuous exotic sets beats the bawdy heart of Benny Hill, with producer Stephen Shiu (also behind the original 1991 film, though not the 1996 and 1998 spinoffs) pitching the film as an erotic comedy, not a highbrow adaption of the seventeenth classic Chinese erotic novel written by Li Yu on which it is loosely based.
The plot, in a nutshell, follows the erotic exploits of a cocksure young intellectual named Wei Yangshang during the Ming Dynasty, who decides to embark on a sensual odyssey when his young bride Tie Yuxiang, the daughter of a Buddhist priest, fails to respond in a suitably enthusiastic manner to his fumbling attempts at lovemaking. It transpires Tie’s lack of bedroom ardour is not entirely her fault, but more down to the stubby, inconsequential dimensions of her husband’s cock, but by the time this has been surgically remedied with the transplant of the somewhat more substantial organs of a donkey, which Wei puts to good use in the Pavilion of Ultimate Bliss in the Prince of Ning’s Tower of Rarities, his beautiful young bride appears to have slipped away beyond his reach.
I’ve not seen any of the original Sex & Zen films, although they were distributed on video in the UK sometime back, but the brand should be fairly well-known, if only by name and reputation, to most Asian cinema devotees. One thing that interests me is how the film is being promoted by Metrodome as “the world’s first 3-D erotic film”, something which some critics, such as Ben Child for The Guardian (see ‘Chinese 3D porn film may get sequel’ article from 15 April) seem to have taken on trust – although bizarrely the text where he makes this assertion links back to a Hollwood Reporter article by Karen Chu from 14 April (‘No ‘Sex’ for Imax, but ‘3D Zen’ Film Eyes Sequel’, linked here) that repeatedly states it is “the first 3D erotic film from Hong Kong”. Well, in my post from last year, alongside Perfect Education, I also mentioned a couple of other 3D sex movies from the 1960s and 1970s – Al Silliman Jr.’s The Stewardesses (1969) and Pete Walker’s Four Dimensions of Greta (1972) – while I should also add that Koji Seki made a 3D pink film entitled Abnormal Pervert (Hentai-ma) in 1969 and, if one wants to stretch the definition of “erotic film” further, various adult internet sites have been offering 3D services of late. I am sure there are plenty of other examples, but I guess what they mean is that this is the first of the new wave of theatrically-distributed 3D films to sell itself on its sexual content. I’m not sure I’d go as far as to label it a porn film – there’s a lot of nudity there, its true, but no explicit portrayals of sexual activity. Still, I guess the marketing approach has worked – Hong Kong cinema doesn’t otherwise get much coverage in British newspapers nowadays.
In any measure, while the new Sex & Zen film is certainly not without its points of interest, the 3D element is probably its least satisfactory aspect. Its makers have fundamentally failed to understand what does and doesn’t work in 3D. For a start, the majority of the shots range from mid-shot to close-up, which severely reduces depth of field, throwing the backgrounds completely out of focus and destroying the whole illusion of an existing real space in front of the camera. Related to this, one wonders if 3D is particularly well-suited to erotic cinema in the same way that, for example, the 2.35:1 widescreen ratio, matching the dimensions of the recumbent human body, was to Japanese pinku eiga productions in the 1960s. Unlike the use of 3D in Cave of Forgotten Dreams, which emphasised the textures and curvature of the cave surface under different lighting conditions to give a sense of its dimensions (rather than separating the image into a series of planes of varying degrees of depth as seems to be the case in a lot of films where the 3D is done in post-production), or the arrangement of moving bodies within a tangible physical space of Pina (or even last year’s Streetdance 3D and StepUp 3D), in many of the sex scenes, the points of visual interest represented by the writhing naked bodies are staged at a fixed focal length, up close and personal to the proxy voyeur of the camera, occluding all background elements.
At its best, 3D should give the viewer a wider range of possibilities to scan the scene and take in its details, but in these examples, such avenues are totally blocked off, with nothing visible behind the flat planes of foreground nudity. There’s no attempt at staging in depth, of organising different levels of visual stimulus or visual interest along the the Z-axis. Put simply, there’s just nowhere for the eyes to go. A notable shot of one of the actresses thrusting her breasts outwards at the viewer is one of the few in which the 3D aspects are even noticeable, but still the effect is jarring, and comically so.
My own observations based on watching quite a lot of the recent 3D releases, and which I outlined in my recent Shock Labyrinth 3D review on Midnight Eye, is that the format works best when it is least intrusive, with scenes filmed in long shot and in long takes, and the camera moving and choreographed in such a way that the depth planes of the screen are actually exploited to hide or reveal pieces of narrative information. Instead of thinking of what the latest superhero movie is going to look like in 3D, can we imagine what films like Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope might look like? In an interview published in Sight & Sound in April, Werner Herzog stated “this is my dictum: you can shoot a porno film in 3D, but you cannot film a romantic comedy in 3D.” I, however, would like filmmakers to use more imagination, because on the evidence of my viewing, it is when 3D is used for spectacle that the illusion of cinema breaks down. 3D might turn out to be intrinsically unsuitable for porn or actions films, but if used subtly and intelligently, it may be better suited for thrillers and comedies.
What 3D does is essentially make us question the very definition of ‘realism’ in cinema, further complicating an already contentious field of argument. Pornography trades upon this idea of “realism”, or hyper-realism; that we’re seeing “more” of the object than we might in real life, from all angles, inside and out, and the more we are shown, the more we want to see. This desire for complete visual knowledge, both to get beneath the skin of the subject so to speak and ‘consume’ it in its entirety, is certainly not limited to pornography, but has been the driving force for advances in film technology and in particular films that celebrate this technology – Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within and Avatar are perfect examples, where immersive cinematic worlds are created that challenge the viewer to scrutinise them from every angle. If knowledge is power, then one might say this is indeed empowering for the viewer, but it can be frustrating too, as one is always aware that at the heart of these ‘realistic’ portrayals of unrealistic worlds is spectacle and showmanship, something which I argued in my first Cinematism, Realism, and Spectacle posting inspired by my viewing of Cameron’s film. I also reviewed a book, Akira Mizuta Lippit’s Atomic Light (Shadow Optics) for Midnight Eye a few years back (follow link here) that explored some of these various ideas surround cinema’s ability to visualise the invisible, and how technology has been developed to pander to our overwhelming quest for visual knowledge. So in this sense, we might agree with Herzog’s comments about 3D being perfectly suited for pornography, in that pornography is presented as a spectacle that appeals to the viewer to consume visually its subject in its entirety.
But there’s another kind of realism that 3D, and 3D alone, is more ideally suited to satisfying, which is providing a perfect representation of the profilmic scene with its dimensions preserved intact while suppressing any awareness on the part of the viewer of the technology used to create the illusion. Traditional “flat” cinema, no matter how ‘realistic’ it strives to be, cannot do this because ultimately we are always aware that the images we are watching are 2-dimensional projections in which a certain amount of spatial information has been inevitably lost (think of something like Sokurov’s Russian Ark). When we watch Pina, we are not being dazzled by the 3D spectacle of the film itself, but the faithfully reproduced performance within the film. Similarly, what is impressive in Cave of Forgotten Dreams is the Palaeolithic cave art rendered onscreen with a perfect fidelity to the original cave surface containing the drawings; the camera is the proxy for the viewer, taking us into spaces we cannot ourselves go. In both cases, it is what is in front of the camera that is important, not the post-production editing work that manipulates the spatial and temporal flow of the profilmic scene.
While 3D film, and indeed cinema in general, has historically traded upon showmanship and spectacle, to my mind these examples show that the best examples of 3D occur when the techniques unique to cinema that have evolved over the past hundred or so years, of editing and switching between different viewpoints and different length lenses for dramatic effect, are as much as possible eradicated. Instead, filmmakers working in 3D might do better concentrating on reproducing a scene as if it were being witnessed live by the viewer sitting in their cinema seats. A new set of rules, a new set of challenges, but it is going to be really interesting to see whether there’ll be films in the coming years that explore the potential of the format more satisfyingly.
3D Sex & Zen isn’t a film that pushes any envelopes in this respect, it’s true, but just as one might argue that the 3D adds very little to the film, the flipside is that it won’t lose anything by being viewed flat either. At the end of the day, it’s an entertaining enough period sex romp with a ribald sense of humour and an acute awareness of its place in the market. As such, it makes for a good pre-pub evening out, and personally I thought found the penis transplant scene pretty damn funny…