Comedy, Films, Hong Kong, Reviews

Vulgaria

Pang Ho-Chung (Love In A Puff, Dream Home) returns with a hilarious comedy on the HK filmmaking industry…

‘I think movies are just like fashion. There are cycles,’ producer To Wai-Cheung (Chapman To) tells veteran exotic film actress Yum-Yum Shaw (Siu Yam-Yam) when trying to woo her into his latest film. ‘Just like bell-bottomed trousers: they were popular in the 70s, but after a few decades they’ll become popular again.’

True enough, the time for studio produced erotic movies has, er, come again. Like most of the rest of the world, the trend in Hong Kong really began in the early 70s, heralded by the Shaw Brothers production Intimate Confessions of a Chinese Courtesan (1972), which brought many imitators, including Confession of a Concubine (1976), which producer To is trying to remake.

In the 80s and 90s, the genre would be redefined with films like Nam Noi-choi’s Erotic Ghost Story (1987) and Michael Mak’s Sex And Zen (1990) that mixed wuxia style fantasy that required a whole new motion picture rating: Category III. (Although he comedy that ran through these films often meant they had more in common with the innocuous British sex films of the 70s.)

In recent years a reboot of Sex & Zen, Christopher Suen’s 3D Sex and Zen: Extreme Ecstasy (2011), has brought that extra dimension to erotic movies, at the cost of much of the fun that made the 90s original so watchable, despite it’s content. With decent box office, and a first day said to have even beaten Avatar’s opening weekend, the next wave of erotic films is just beginning, with another 3D effort, Due West: Our Sex Journey, released just last year.

That’s not the only thing that moves in cycles, as the tail end of the second cycle brought Viva Erotica, written and directed by Derek Yee and Law Chi-leung. Just over 15 years later it’s the turn of Pang Ho-Chung, turning his hand to broader comedy moments after the romantic comedies Love In A Puff and Love In The Buff, and his impressive (but rather critically divisive) horror Dream Home, which itself had some outstanding, if often ghoulish, comedy moments.

The only thing is, much like Viva Erotica, Pang’s film is less about the making of an erotic film than it is a satire on the Hong Kong film industry itself…

Chapman To (The Bounty, Mr. and Mrs. Gambler, Initial D, Infernal Affairs) plays producer To Wai-Cheung, struggling to get his latest movie off the ground. Within minutes Pang breaks the fourth wall, with To addressing the audience directly, and particularly those latecomers who block everyone’s view.

Presenting this dilemma to an audience of film students, To compares the work of producers to pubic hair, reducing the friction between people. ‘A Good producer is like a great thick bush!’ He recounts the trails and tribulations he encountered on the film. How his writer/director scuppered the chances of sponsorship with an insurance company by suggesting they fund the Al Qaeda.

Unable to make his alimony payments, he is forced to look elsewhere for capital if he still wants access to see his daughter. A friend introduces him to triad boss Brother Tyrannosaurus (Ronald Cheng, Legendary Assassin, Fatal Contact, Golden Chicken 2), a Guangxi gangster who seems to have based his wardrobe and demeanour on Simon Yam’s character in Full Contact. After sharing a meal that includes rabbit heads, a mouse family and cow vaginas – Our Hong Kongers opinion of mainland ‘delicacies’ rather echoes many Westerners on Chicken feet – the pair end up insulting Tyrannosaurus to the point where the only way they can save face is to be ‘intimate’ with his girlfriend, a mule.

(You can’t help but think that one place director Pang wasn’t interested in selling this film to is mainland China. Indeed, Pang seems rather defiantly Hong Kong.)

But does he go through with the deed? To awakes to find, rather like Hunter S. Thompson in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, (or its more recent The Hangover incarnation) that he remembers nothing of the night from that point on. (The Grindhouse style ‘missing reel’.) But soon finds he’s agreed to remake Confession of a Concubine, as long as he can obtain the services of the original star Yum-Yum Shaw. Will he, ahem, pull it off?

Though the outrageous references to mules and an interesting use of popping candy continue (as the end credits say, don’t try this at home kids!) it’s interesting to note this is much less explicit than other recent films about porn movie making, such as Tsai Ming-liang’s The Wayward Cloud and the Tetsuya Nakashima scripted Lala Pipo; there’s nothing quite as shocking as the unfortunate mother and daughter reunion in Lala Pipo, for instance, nor the unlucky incident with the bottlecap in Wayward Cloud.

Even in terms of nudity, or lack thereof its rather tame in comparison with its precursor Viva Erotica. It’s intriguing to see where Pang draws the line, especially considering how explicitly violent he was in Dream Home. Indeed To actually falls unconscious for half of the filming. Yet the script is littered with hilarious references to the industry, as well injokes. ‘Mummy says all your films are category III,’ To’s daughter tells him. ‘Other kids go an see movies like Lord Of The Rings and Infernal Affairs.’

Director Blackie Tat (Matt Chow, Mr. & Mrs. Gambler, The Twins Effect, Overheard 2) helps run a mahjong gambling den for housewives, complete with crèche for their kids. When the police turn up, he pretends to be making a movie. To even manages to sell sponsorship to Plauyboy Condoms, despite the film being a period piece. (And most hilariously of all, they in fact sponsor the film, even though the only use mentioned is for protection with mules!)

Chapman To is, as ever, a likeable rogue; adept at playing comedy, he brings pathos to his strained relationship with his ex-wife and love of his daughter (who his wife blames for being ‘congenitally affected’ by him with shortness and a low IQ).

Once again To’s The Bounty, La Comédie humaine and Mr. and Mrs. Gambler co-star Fiona Sit appears alongside him, though her role as To’s lethargic PA is far too small to make use of their natural onscreen chemistry. Even shorter is Johnnie To regular Lam Suet’s fleeting appearance as Tyrannosaurus’ henchman. Siu Yam-yam, however, is refreshingly course as herself. Hiro Hayama, who appeared in 3D Sex and Zen: Extreme Ecstasy, also plays an exaggerated version of himself. Dada Chan (MicroSex Office, Mr. Zhai, Lan Kwai Fong) makes a good impression as the model turned actress who’s known as ‘Popping Candy’ for a reason.

Amongst the parallels with Viva Erotica, it seems they share a Stanley Kubrick reference. Here it’s a recreation of the initial scene in 2001, complete with Strauss’ accompanying Also Sprach Zarathustra. Only rather than it being the grunts of early man discovering weapons, but of rather more primitive urges (hysterically played out by To).

Much might not have changed in those 15 years, but when To needs public opinion to help get his film released, he uses technology and the social and sharing networks, unthinkable in the 90s. Again, this echoes a scene in Viva Erotica as he reconstructs the events like a detective in a thriller.

But perhaps the biggest difference between Vulgaria and its antecedent is that at no point is artistic expression, or compromise thereof, mentioned. It’s just about making a living, nothing else. And perhaps that’s the most cutting comment Pang has to make about filmmaking right now…

Pang Ho-cheung’s Vulgaria is available now on UK Blu-Ray and DVD from Third Window films.

Home media details

Distributor: Third Window Films (UK)

Edition: DVD (2013)

Good looking transfer with low key extras, just a 'making of' and 'trailer'. Great to see this on UK release though!

About the author

Andy H
Founder of easternKicks.com, which he's been running since 2002. And it's all thanks to Monkey, Water Margin and those damn fantastic 80s Hong Kong action movies! Andy works as a graphic designer in London... More »
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