It took me a long time to review this movie because it took me a long time to getting around to watching it. The first film was refreshingly fun, if sleazy and stupid. Given that Hong Kong’s Category III soft-core period piece was previously moribund outside of the direct-to-VCD/DVD market, the overwhelming positive reception from English speaking fans was really to be expected; they celebrated The Forbidden Legend: Sex and Chopsticks as a throwback to the days of Michael Mak’s Sex and Zen. Little did they know that in a couple of short years, Hong Kong would unleash 3D Sex and Zen: Extreme Ecstasy (which is breaking box office records in its home territory as I write this), or that the sequel to The Forbidden Legend, released a scant few days after I posted my review of the first, would recall another aspect of older Hong Kong film making: the quick cash-in.
As mentioned in my previous review, The Forbidden Legend movies are based on the D. H. Lawrence-esque, Ming Dynasty era novel Jin Ping Mei (in English: The Plum in the Golden Vase), and so the audience, presumably familiar with the story either from reading the original or viewing one of the numerous film adaptations, knows that the nice young Ximen Qing of the first film will become a sexually voracious murderer at some point in the narrative. The first movie ended with Ximen’s seduction of the beautiful Lotus, the killing of her husband, the dwarf Wu Da-Lang, and Xinem taking Lotus as his second wife.
The second film opens with Ximen admitting that he is a sex-addict, in case that was not obvious after the events of the first film. Those familiar with the source material will know what comes next: Ximen’s growing obsession with kinky sex and his disregard for the feelings of his wives and concubines causes the women in his life to fight with each other, and Wu Song comes to avenge his brother’s death. Moon, Ximen’s first wife, enlists her maid, Plum, as a sort of double agent to sabotage Ximen’s affections for his other wives, while Ximen continues to murder even his friends in order to get to their wives.
This is all fairly in line with the source material, but after the funny, mostly light-hearted first film, the contrast is jarring, sometimes disturbing. Like the first film, every scene is draped with naked flesh, but the tone of many scenes is nastier and cruel. To punish one of his wives, Pinky (whose husband Ximen paralyzed and forced to watch his carrying on with his Pinky before killing him) Ximen organizes a gang-rape. Lotus, it is revealed, had feelings for Wu Song, though she also pleasures herself as she watches Wu getting beaten to a pulp after Ximen, Moon, and Plum frame him for attempted rape. Plum poisons Ximen with an overdose of aphrodisiac, partly as revenge for his having tied her up so that one of his servants could have his way with her.
The novel by Lanling Xiaoxiao Sheng used all of these elements to comment on sexual politics and the role of women in Chinese society. The film has no pretense of doing such, so the rough and sometimes violent sexuality serves only to titillate, which it will, assuming that the viewer is a budding pervert like Ximen Qing. The only sex scene that resembles those of the previous film is an early one in which Qing and Lotus use grapes as erotic objects, with Lotus actually shooting grapes into Ximen’s waiting mouth (this is actually more or less from the novel). Otherwise, the bondage and rape and depravity become a somewhat painful reminder of the grimmer films from the early nineties, like Li Han Hsiang’s 1991 adaptation of the same material, The Golden Lotus “Love and Desire.”
The biggest surprise here is the inclusion of Winnie Leung, an actress who appeared most often in Jackie Chan movies and other innocuous fair, as Plum. Unlike the Japanese porn actresses who do most of their scenes sans-costuming, Leung shows only as much skin as one would expect from an otherwise respectable mainstream actress (which is still rather a lot, to be honest). She’s awfully pretty, though too old to convince as a teenaged Plum, and while she can actually act, the film’s only reason for existing is to show tits and ass and pubic hair. She didn’t want to, apparently, which makes her role in the film odd.
But Leung's casting is merely a symptom of the real problem with this movie: it was designed entirely to cash in on the success of the first, regardless of how well it fits as a sequel. The cinematography in the first recalled those earlier films, with soft lighting highlighting some creatively staged sex scenes. But even that is absent here, as the film is shot in a mostly serviceable, utilitarian manner. It looks like a straight-to-video digital picture; the first was digitally filmed too, but it at least aspired to the higher production values of its inspirations.
Hong Kong cinema aficionados who want to see this story told well will have to look at one of the other adaptations, and those who want to see a fun throw-back to the playful smut of the late eighties and early nineties should watch the first. Or better yet, watch Sex and Zen or Yu Pui Tsuen for the hundredth time. The Forbidden Legend: Sex and Chopsticks 2 is rough, unpleasant going for the most part, and there are no chopsticks this time. Bummer.