Movie Review - The Forbidden Legend: Sex and Chopsticks
A strange and wonderful thing happened one glorious day when I was searching the local import shop for new(ish) DVD releases. As I weaved through the cluster of weeaboo scum and villainy admiring an issue of some Japanese magazine with a decidedly "moe" cover illustration, a ray of light bouncing off a nearby, freshly shrink-wrapped DVD caught my eye. On the cover was a bald, though not unattractive woman feigning the deepest throes of carnal ecstasy. "What brilliance has my search uncovered?" I thought, though sadly not aloud. Upon closer inspection, it turned out to be The Forbidden Legend: Sex and Chopsticks, the newest release from My Way Films, a studio whose name I could recall only because of the Douglas Kung Shaolin vs. Evil Dead movies. Clearly, I was already sold.
After my first, entirely sublime viewing of this hilarious smut, I learned through intense research that it was the only My Way film released in theaters in years. It's also the latest in a genre that I figured was forever relegated to direct-to-VCD/DVD hell: the CAT III soft-core period piece. Granted, this isn't the first title like this that My Way has come up with. Some of their creative output includes title like Love and Sex in the Sung Dynasty (Phillip Ko Fei and Law Kei, 1999) and Legends of Lust (Luo Man-Di, 2001). Not having seen them, I can only go by screen caps and what little information is available for them, but given that the later was only released on VCD, and the previous involves the directorial talents of Phillip Ko Fei (a decent enough actor and a fantastic martial artist, but no auteur or even competent craftsman) I feel justified in saying that The Forbidden Legend is the first real reason that My Way has provided for lovers of trashy Hong Kong cinema to celebrate.
And because this was an actual theatrical release, there's clearly been a bit more talent put into it than the average Phillip Ko Fei effort. It even has the same pretense of class that many of the late eighties and early nineties films of this type attempted to claim, usually through the adaptation of classical literary pornography. Sex and Chopsticks adapts the Jin Ping Mei (known in English as The Plum in the Golden Vase) in much the same way that Sex and Zen (Michael Mak, 1991) adapted Li Yu's 17th century erotic novel, Yu Pui Tsuen (in English, The Carnal Prayer Mat or The Prayer Mat of Flesh, depending on the translation). That is to say, loosely and with the focus shifted entirely on sex and spectacle (sextacle? no that sounds wrong). That means that The Forbidden Legend genuinely feels like it could have been a part of that late eighties-early nineties wave of soft-core smut; The Forbidden Legend's director Cash Chin Man-Kei actually contributed to those earlier films a sequel to Sex and Zen in 1996.
In this retelling of the Jin Ping Mei, the audience is treated almost immediately to bizarre sexual activity, seen through the eyes of the young Ximen Qing (Lam Wai-Kin, a genre staple), whose father, Ximen Tate (a visibly "I'm-embarrassed- but-needed-a-paycheck" Norman Chu), is a Sung Dynasty sexologist. The camera lingers on Tate eating giant tiger penis and on ancient pornography in extensive point of view shots representing the young Qing's fascination and confusion with his dad's work. After his ill mother dies (in one of the most awkward sex scenes ever put on film) the elder Ximen begins to teach the younger Ximen about his trade, and his training includes world cinema's only representation of the fabled "cock push-up."
But aside from being irrepressibly horny, Ximen Tate isn't such a bad guy. Even when we find out that he hired a prostitute for Ximen Qing's first, we learn he only did so because he wanted to boost his son's confidence (Qing doesn't know she's a prostitute until after she leaves). What he truly wants is for his son to meet some girl with whom he can settle down and have really awesome sex with. Perhaps not the healthiest wish for a father to have for his son, but as an extension of his work as an ancient sexologist, it's a bit more understandable than it would be otherwise.
Fans of The Water Margin, Chang Cheh, Ti Lung, Li Han Hsiang (and many others) will likely recognize the name Ximen Qing even if they haven't already read either of the novels that deal with the character. He's the vicious and perverted noble who poisons the dwarf Wu Da-Lang in order to steal his wife, the beautiful Pan Jinlian, causing limitless grief to his brother, Wu Song. it's hard to imagine the cute kid and understandably sexually frustrated Ximen Qing of the first half of The Forbidden Legend to be the same character. Much like the Star Wars prequels that everybody hates, the audience knows what's coming, and so it behooves the writers and director to at least make it interesting.
Cash Chin does so by providing lots and lots of sex scenes. After he's come of age, Ximen Qing spends most of his time wandering around and fornicating. It is during these travels that he meets his future wife, a then fourteen year old Pan Jinlian, as well as his first wife, a then Buddhist nun named Moon (Japanese AV star Wakana Hikaru). Having been orphaned and raised in a convent from infancy, Moon has never seen a man until Ximen shows up, injured, at their door. Eager to satisfy her curiosity about the male form - especially given the tales of men hiding evil snakes designed to impale and hurt women - Moon examines Ximen's body in the scene that provides the film with its totally awesome title. It's an inspired move that they drew from this scene instead of the one where he meets Pan and crams her tiny bound feet halfway down his own throat, the camera lingering on the fourteen-year-old Pan's face as she registers deep pleasure. Foot fetish be damned, that scene is creepy.
After a good number of inconsequential scenes, including a airborne, wire-effect filled sex-combat sequence straight out of Chinese Torture Chamber Story (Bosco Lam, 1994) as well as some by-the-numbers kung fu sequences, Ximen Qing meets the now grown up Pan Jinlian (yet another Japan AV star, Serina Hayakawa) and the most famous part of the story begins... just as the film itself ends, although the sequel will be released within a matter of days in HK theaters as of this writing.
After the incredibly hypocritical and largely ridiculous events of last year's "sexy photo gate" scandal, it really seemed like these sorts of movies were done for. After all, if this is how badly people react to images of famous women without clothes, why would any established or up-and-coming Hong Kong actress risk it? And forget about the Mainland; the censor board threw a fit over the perfectly defensible artistic choices made by Tang Wei and Ang Lee in Lust, Caution. That there is no scandal when male actors and foreign women are publicly nude, and that young women whose photos were stolen receive little more than abuse is indicative of a huge double standard. The fact that nobody in the industry except tabloids could make a quick buck off of it is indicative of HK cinema's changing standards and priorities. But these are seperate issues altogether.
The Forbidden Legend: Sex and Chopsticks gets points for doing a number of things right, even if the majority of the movie is just so, so wrong. For one thing, it's nowhere near the dehumanizing and ugly Japanese adult video (or Occidentally produced pornography for that matter) that many of the actresses hail from. The sex is usually ridiculous enough that - although still exploitative - it doesn't feel as dirty as it easily could have. And the girls certainly are pretty, if nothing else, and clearly not shy. Lam Wai-Kin is also a veteran of the genre, and although he's not exactly good at anything in particular, he's still less offensive than Edison Chen. There's some funny gross out gags and the film itself has a carnival-esque attitude that makes it palatable. Also helping is the fact that the film makers were trying their hardest to make a beautiful film in spite of a low budget. Ross William Clarkson's cinematography isn't exactly Christopher Doyle, but he's done an admirable job making everything look nice - which is usually easy when there's naked girls lying all over the place. But that's the thing - this is smut. It's good natured, impossibly earnest and surprisingly innocent smut (the scene with Moon and the chopsticks is surprisingly well played and kind of cute), but that doesn't make it more than the sum of its (admittedly comely) parts.
All that is short praise, I know. But The Forbidden Legend is a short movie, not so much in length, but ambition. Kenneth Bronson from So Good Reviews and Kozo from lovehkfilm have both commented on this film as a throwback to the days of Sex and Zen (I'm posting this now to beat Peter Nepstad from The Illuminated Lantern, whose observations will probably be a part of a rather lengthy article he's writing about the Jin Ping Mei and The Water Margin in film). I'm not sure if this is a real recommendation or a back-handed compliment. As a midnight movie to watch with like-minded friends or for those who like the story and don't mind seeing it done as cheesy soft-core erotica, this isn't the worst you could do. As a fan of the story of Wu Song, Ximen Qing, Wu Da-Lang, and the amourous Lotus Pan, I'm not regretting my purchase.