With the recent release of Pang Ho-cheung’s Vulgaria, we look back at Derek Yee and Law Chi-leung’s classic 90s comedy about HK erotic cinema…
For a country world renowned for changing the shape of action cinema, it’s notable that some of Hong Kong’s finest moments have come from self referential, sideways looks at its own film and entertainment industry. Rather like Hollywood in the 40s and 50s, Hong Kong developed a knack for incorporating appropriate casting, knowing remarks and references in the 80s; often in ways that add a sophisticated layer of subtext rather than detract from the main storyline. One of the most recent examples includes Ann Hui’s A Simple Life; full of cameos that make up a Who’s Who of HK cinema, many playing exaggerated versions themselves.
Nowadays it’s become all too common for such clashes between reality and fiction as the lines between celebrity and nobody have become blurred, but there’s no doubting just how good Hong Kong filmmakers got at dropping sophisticated intimations – and often Leslie Cheung was at the heart of it. With Cheung playing a hit making songwriter and producer, Peter Chan’s He’s a Woman, She’s a Man was full of jokes about Cantopop and allusions to the lead’s sexuality. In Stanley Kwan’s Rouge we find an elderly Cheung doing menial work for a ‘wire fu’ film while his ghostly departed girlfriend derides this preposterously silly vision of the afterlife. The previous year Cheung had taken the lead in genre defining (and gravity defying) A Chinese Ghost Story.
In Viva Erotica, Leslie Cheung plays Sing, a director whose previous flops force him to compromise his artistic goals to make a living. Pushed by his producer Chung (Law Kar-ying, From Beijing with Love, A Chinese Odyssey, House of Fury) to look for funding from a triad boss (Paul Chun, A Simple Life, Shinjuku Incident, Peking Opera Blues), he soon finds himself helming a Category III erotic movie.
As Sing struggles to come to terms with the situation, his relationship with his girlfriend May (Karen Mok, Fallen Angels, So Close, King of Comedy, Shaolin Soccer, East Meets West) starts to crumble too. The allure of his leading lady starts to tell, the spoilt but gorgeous girlfriend of the gangster boss, Mango (Shu Qi, So Close, The Eye 2, Three Times). Can an artist really make a commercial film?
With Viva Erotica, writer/director Derek Yee (People’s Hero, One Nite in Mongkok, 2 Young, Protégé, Shinjuku Incident) and Law Chi-leung, also known as Lo Chi-Leung (Double Tap, Inner Senses, Koma, The Bullet Vanishes) truly wear their heart on their sleeve. Lau Ching-wan even cameos as an acclaimed but tortured director (Yee in the English subtitles) who was once an actor but was urged to give it up by his mentor. (Which should all sound rather familiar, as Yee first found fame starring in Shaw Brothers martial art films like Buddha’s Palm, Death Duel, Legend of the Bat and Heaven Sword and Dragon Sabre.) Co-writer Bosco Lam was even responsible for one of the Category III films lampooned (and actually featured onscreen) in the movie, A Chinese Torture Chamber Story.
The film is a joy for anyone with a passing knowledge of Hong Kong cinema. On screening his first footage, all blurred and slow motion, Sing’s producer tells him, ‘You don’t have to be all artistic like Wong Kar-Wai. You need to be commercial like Wong Jing!’ (Once again Cheung’s previous work is recalled: he had appeared in several Kar-wai movies, including Days Of Being Wild and Ashes Of Time.)
If Shu Qi’s role mirrored public opinion of her at the time, having appeared in Sex & Zen II, her erotic movie co-star, HK all-rounder Elvis Tsui, actually had plenty of experience in such movies; appearing in the original Sex & Zen and even the featured film A Chinese Torture Chamber Story. Anthony Wong cameos as Wong Jing in a bar, bragging to Sing and his crew that his latest film stars both Stephen Chow and Jet Li. ‘It’s a breakthrough’, he says, ‘It’s a musical this time!’
But Viva Erotica’s inspiration goes far beyond local movies. A daydreamed, sped-up sex scene deliberately echoes Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange, even borrowing Rossini’s William Tell Overture to accompany the scene. The film is particularly well shot by cinematographer Jingle Ma, who would soon turn director himself. One scene, where Sing obsesses over his script while his girlfriend looks on dismissively, has a fine use of z axis in the depth of field – something even Brain De Palma would have been proud of.
Thanks to his onscreen cinematographer Dicky (Peter Ngor, Mr Vampire, Monkey Kung Fu, Dirty Ho, Full Contact) Sing finds artistic inspiration in the early porn movies of Japanese directors who went onto much better things, particularly Masayuki Suo.
Which would be all well and good for all the cineasts amongst us, but Yee and Law hardly neglect the narrative either. The frisson between Sing and his long time friend and producer Chung is palpable, and his relationship with May an accurate, modern-day portrayal.
Indeed, once again in Hong Kong cinema we have a strong, positive female lead, superbly performed by Karen Mok; a cop in real life she’s much more successful in her career than her boyfriend. Sing’s mum (Man Lan, The Vagabond Swordsman, Little Songstress, Many Happy Returns) even urges May to leave Sing, having been unhappily married to a director herself who couldn’t balance his work and home life. And we even get to see a less frivolous, more human side to the ditzy Mango.
(One of the films most surprisingly deft moments comes from May reconstructing meeting his crew filming, pointing out all his telltale signs of guilt over his attraction to Mango in the style of a detective thriller.)
Cheung brings his usual brilliance to the role, his ability to switch between dramatic and broad comedy elements, while managing to look as gorgeous on screen as ever. The only detraction is an unfortunate portent of what would come, when Sing and producer Chung are discussing director Yee, who committed suicide after poor reviews and box office for his latest film. ‘What would you do if I killed myself?’ Sing asks. ‘A young director suicides because an arsehole producer forces him to shoot a sex scene on the street,’ Chung tactlessly replies. ‘That’s a great idea!’
Perhaps the films greatest strength is that it works on so well on so many levels. Unsurprisingly it scored high when judged by peers, in much the way that films often do elsewhere (Argo is a recent case in point). Winning Shu Qi two awards at the 16th Hong Kong Awards in 1997, best new artist and best supporting actress, it was nominated for six other categories that year, mainly losing out to Peter Chan’s Comrades: Almost A Love Story. The impression that gives, probably quite accurately, is that Hong Kong filmmakers were quite happy to have fun made of themselves and their work.
Ultimately Viva Erotica is just that. Hardly a criticism of the Category III films that filled theatres from the early 90s, its primary concern is the same as many contemporary films: a cautious eye on the imminent handover of Hong Kong back to mainland China, and the effect that might have. In immediate terms it might have meant very little, but with hindsight the writing was on the wall for much the particularly Hong Kong cultural references and genres that had, up until then, been so much a part of its framework. It’s really a last hurrah for a freedom in a changing environment…
Definitely worthy of revisiting, Viva Erotica is a surprisingly classy comedy.