Release Date: August 09th, 2012 (Hong Kong)
UK DVD Release Date: April 15th, 2013
UK Distributor: Third Window Films
Running Time: 92 mins.
Director: Pang Ho-Cheung
Writer: Pang Ho-Cheung (Screenplay),
Starring: Chapman To, Dada Chan, Fiona Sit, Lam Suet, Hiro Hayama, Ronald Cheng, Kristal Tin, Simon Loui
The film starts with on-screen text and a narrator offering a disclaimer:
Your attention please. This film has been classed as vulgar comedy. It contains high amounts of coarse language, adult themes, political incorrectness, discrimination and sexual situations.
They should also add it is bloody funny.
The film is told in a non-linear fashion as a series of flashbacks initiated by To Wai-Cheung (Chapman To Man-chak), a movie producer who is giving a Q&A at a university. The first question from the student body is,
“What is involved in being a movie producer?”
This is met with a neat bit of comedy and bawdiness that sets the tone of the film as he compares the role of the producer to pubic hair in as much as both reduce friction between different bodies in a creative process.
His self-effacement and cynicism probably comes from the fact that he is on a pretty low rung of the Hong Kong film ladder as he has yet to produce anything resembling a hit and he has been reduced to making Category III films. He is also financially in trouble and is so broke he is forced to witness his production company’s offices become the sight of raunchy photo-shoots and he is unable to pay alimony to his rather bitter ex-wife (Kristal Tin) and support their daughter. Things aren’t all bad since he has a new title which he reveals during the Q&A, a sequel of the 1976 title Confession of a Concubine.
We witness the process of making a film thanks to the Q&A format and the script’s disjointed nature. A series of asides detail To starting at his lowest point as an out of work producer, trying to rustle together funding from an investor from mainland China named Tyrannosaurus (Ronald Cheng), who just happens to be the head of a Guangxi triad gang and a man who has very particular tastes in food and sex. Indeed the whole sequel to the classic concubine film is his idea and just to make things more awkward he demands that To cast his childhood idol, the original star of Confessions of a Concubine¹, Yum Yum Shaw (Susan Shaw) even though she is in her 60’s. Ever the professional producer To agrees and drops any reservations, adopting the motto, “You invest we shoot!”
As the Q&A continues it becomes clear that the film generates its comedy from To battling a series of disasters and resolving them as best he can. He relates increasingly lurid tales about the process of making his latest film from hiring pretentious directors and casting actors to the use of CGI, and all the while the film becomes more explicit and cynical as he reveals the things he has sacrificed in the name of making a movie, dignity being chief amongst them.
For all of its cynicism the film is both an affectionate tweak of the collective nose of HK film and a film about making films much like The Woodsman & the Rain. Unlike the latter good-natured title, Vulgaria is genuinely vulgar, a film awash with some very, very inventive swearing² but it never strays into explicitness or bad taste. Yes, there are sexy shenanigans with a range of scenes containing bestiality and blow-jobs but there are no full-blown sex scenes and we never witness the actual shoot of the concubine movie. When things do get raunchy most of the action happens just off screen or the scene will cut back to the Q&A as an audience member interrupts or To Wai-Cheung’s memory disappears in a stylish manner akin to film stock burning up.
The film runs at a fast pace with few scenes missing out on the comedy and it flows because it has a well-rounded cast of characters delivering jokes ranging from small jibes like mainland Chinese gangsters getting safe milk powder from Hong Kong to full-blown hilariously offensive gags poking fun at perceived backwardness of mainland Chinese and their culinary practices (fancy eating rabbit head and bull’s eyes?) to choices in sexual partners. There are even more smart gags like the sexual politics of Hong Kong and the indignities heaped upon directors and producers who have overblown egos.
The script, for all its sharp swearing and cynicism does get wayward at point and a dramatic sub-plot involving To’s ex-wife and daughter flounders in the wake of the raunchy comedy but thankfully any down time spent on this drama is short-lived and we quickly get back to the comedy and funny characters and it is here where the more affecting relationship is found as struggling actress Popping Candy (Dada Chen), portrays someone who is less an ingénue and more cynical about the film industry and a great match for To as she shows her resilience in the face of snobbishness from To’s ex-wife.
The film’s script works well because of the actors. Chapman To is charismatic and sympathetic as hell. A plot synopsis about a producer desperately trying to make a film gives the impression that he doesn’t have any principles but he is a decent chap with some. Well, not many actually since he will take advantage of people. Chapman To plays him as a smooth talker who is able to plaster a smile on his face whenever disaster strikes. He is quite ingenious and charming enough despite having to eat crap which makes every humiliation and his solution to every problem enjoyable to watch which is important since the film is focussed on his travails.
The other stand-out characters is Tyrannosaurus played by Ronald Cheng who is gloriously and hilariously over the top. He makes his entrance as a gaudily dressed psychopath grinning like an idiot and brazenly crying “Just back from a public execution!” He is emotionally erratic and hard to predict as a character and Ronald Cheng’s energy and enthusiasm capture this as well as making great fun of the perversion in the character. He is a great compliment to To’s performance.
Anybody looking for sex will be left disappointed because Vulgaria does not lower itself to explicitness but relies upon a whip-smart script and sassy characters who bubble and fizz with life. It is an intelligently delivered, bawdy and amusing comedy which also playfully tweaks the nose of the Hong Kong film industry.
DVD and Blu-ray Special Features
Anamorphic Widescreen transfer with 5.1 Surround Sound
Making Of, Theatrical Trailer
The subtitle, picture and sound quality are up to the usual high standards of Third Window Films and while the theatrical trailer is … the presence of the making of provides some insight into the making of the film from the intentions of the director to the nature of the shoot.
¹ Confessions of a Concubine image
² The extras on the DVD reveal that the swearing is even more creative than the subtitles let on…