Erotic films navigate the oceans of sexual desire, no matter whether that desire is frustrated and repressed or messily fulfilled. It is a category that spans the space between explicitness and restraint, between romance and pornography.
Here are ten films from countries of the East Asian region—chiefly Japan, but also Hong Kong, South Korea and Taiwan—that in their different ways explore erotic themes. They also, as home-grown products, avoid the sort of hurtful orientalist fantasies that Westerners have been inclined in the past to project onto the Far East.
Top: Closer to gourd? Watermelons quench desire in “The Wayward Cloud.”
Sada Abe (Eiko Matsuda) leaves her lover breathless.
In The Realm of the Senses
The real Sada Abe became a cause célèbre in 1936 after she was found wandering the streets of Tokyo in 1936 with, hidden in her kimono, the severed penis of her lover Kichizo Isdhida whom she had erotically (and fatally) asphyxiated four days earlier. From this scandalous slice of reality, Nagisa Oshima has crafted an uncompromisingly hardcore—and often banned—study in sexual obsession, which also serves as an allegory of the insularity and madness of Japan’s phallocentric, self-destructive imperialism in the build-up to its explosive wartime climax. Here, as so often in Japanese erotica, love and death make strange, but close, bedfellows.
Horny horseplay, enthroned and idolised.
Sex and Zen
Adapted from the 17th-century Chinese erotic novel The Carnal Prayer Mat, with a bit of horseplay from Apuleius’ The Golden Ass thrown in for good measure, Michael Mak’s “Sex and Zen” shares severed penises and vagina-dipped foods with “In the Realm of the Senses,” but offers itself as a censor-stirring softcore sex comedy that traces a young lothario’s sexual misadventures after he has a horse’s dick surgically grafted onto his body. The Zen comes in the film’s repentant, moralising conclusion, but its effect is rather undermined by the gleeful presentation of all that precedes. The period naughtiness would be resurrected in many sequels.
Desire through the mirror of history and nostalgia.
In the Mood for Love
In many ways the polar opposite of “In the Realm of the Senses” and “Sex and Zen,” Wong Kar-wai’s millennial moodpiece looks back to colonial Hong Kong of 1962 (and then 1966), where two neighbours (Tony Leung, Maggie Cheung) form an intense bond after discovering that their respective spouses are having an affair. The question of whether they do or do not have sex in room 2046 (which also happens to be the last year that Hong Kong will remain autonomous from mainland China) is hidden in layers of elegance and nostalgia, cheongsams and lingering cigarette smoke, all orchestrated to the stately tones of Michael Galasso’s score. This is the eroticism of restraint, where desire remains forever buried in secrecy, and in the past. It is also the story of a divided nation, with the body politic inscribed on two almost lovers kept apart.
Isolation loves company.
A man on the run (Kim Yoo-suk) takes refuge on a fishing boat, and after a suicide attempt is nursed back to health by the boat’s mute keeper (Suh Jung), who soon has her hooks in him. Kim Ki-duk’s study of isolated characters and marginalised experiences takes for its focus an extreme sadomasochistic relationship (modulated through the imagery of fishing), and finds ways to make its characters’ fugitive desires become part of the watery landscape. “The Isle” is not for the squeamish, but then, love rarely is.
Looking for love.
A Snake of June
Colour-filtered in a monochrome electric blue—the colour of both eros and melancholy—Shinya Tsukamoto’s film traces a bizarre love triangle between an unsatisfied woman (Asuka Kurosawa), her older, inattentive clean-freak husband (Yuji Kotari), and a voyeuristic outsider (Tsukamoto himself). A tripartite mystery that drips with sexual tension, “A Snake of June” is all at once erotic thriller, through-the-keyhole peepshow, schizophrenic psychodrama, X-ray view of human pathologies, and strange romance, with looking, longing and loss locked in its surreal waltz.
Singing in the drought.
The Wayward Cloud
Like “A Snake of June,” most of the films made by Tsai Ming-liang feature near endless rains, but “The Wayward Cloud,” Tsai’s sort-of sequel to “What Time Is It There?” (2001), is set during a prolonged Taipei drought, with the only fluid on offer coming from watermelons or from bodies (often at the same time). Here the search for water suggests a deeper longing, and our pornstar hero’s quest for lost love leads to the floodgates being opened in a shocking climax of liquid release. Along the way, there is bizarre comedy, hardcore sex, and the odd musical number…
Eros in a halfshell.
There is more singing and dancing in “Underwater Love,” Shinji Imaoka’s softcore musical curio in which an aging woman (Sawa Masaki) rediscovers life and love with a supernatural water creature known as a kappa (Yoshiro Umezawa). This film was shot fast and cheap—and it shows—but it comes with two unique selling points: cinematography from “In the Mood for Love”’s Chris Doyle, and a scored by French-German synth duo Stereo Total (whose lyrics, written for an earlier, very different draft, now relate to events only in the abstract). Also, not every pinku eiga portrays Death itself as a chain-smoking, bandana-wearing, beskirted dude who can be averted with the insertion of a magic “anal pearl.”
Postmodern period pornshoot.
A down-on-his-luck producer (Chapman To) works on a never-seen, entirely fictitious sequel to the Shaw Brothers’ very real Seventies softcore smutfest Confessions of a Concubine—and so Pang Ho-cheung’s “Vulgaria” becomes a self-consuming movie about movie-making itself, with a film-within-a-film frame that affords plenty of opportunity for clever-clever reflexes and fourth-wall breaches. This scabrous behind-the-scenes commentary on the Hong Kong Category III sex comedy certainly lives up to its title—but amidst all the animal pussy-eating and candy-assisted cock-eating, there is also plenty of postmodern cake-eating.
Dominated by ensemble erotics.
Also a postmodern sex comedy of sorts, but decidedly weirder, Hitoshi Matsumoto’s “R100” concerns a meek, middle-aged salaryman (Nao Omori) who sheepishly signs up for a gentlemen’s BDSM club, only to find his professional and personal life being invaded by a variety of leather-clad dominatrices (each with her own special powers). As both his masculine and maternal sides are unleashed in unusual ways, this everyman’s strange adventures in pain and passion inspire an argument between bewildered censors, unsure what rating is merited by the film that they—and we—are watching. The results are a hilariously transgressive Ode to Joy, where orgasm is all in the mind.
Meanwhile backstage at the adult video shoot.
Kei Morikawa has directed over 1000 films, though you probably have never heard his name, because all his work has been for the Japanese porn market. His first attempt at feature fiction, “Makeup Room” draws on his vast experience of the business to recreate the off-set area where five actresses (played by real adult video stars) prepare for a chaotic porn shoot with imperturbable makeup artist Tsuzuki (Aki Morita), and reveal their industry’s inner workings. Made on a skinflick’s non-budget, this is frank, funny metaporn, slyly exposing erotic cinema as just another job that exploits its workers’ rivalries, vanities and anxieties.
Images © respective film studios.