By Spank The Monkey
You may be familiar with the cinema technology known as D-Box – a small number of screens in the UK have already been fitted with it. It’s one more way of reducing the film experience to a theme park ride: a cinema rigged with motion control seats that shake, tilt and vibrate in ways defined by the movement on screen. Generally, it’s used to add realism to action movies, wobbling the viewer as things crash and explode in front of them.
Later this year, a Hong Kong studio is set to release the first 3D pornographic film using the D-Box process. This should tell you everything you need to know about the territory’s attitude to sex on screen. Even more so when you discover that the film in question is 4D Sex & Zen, the latest entry in a franchise previously discussed in these pages. As I suggested back then, you get the feeling that erotic film in Hong Kong hasn’t really grown up yet. So when you discover that one of the biggest local hits of the past few years has been a bawdy comedy called Vulgaria (just released on home video in the UK), you begin to fear the worst. But you shouldn’t.
Hong Kong cinema – as I discovered quite early on in my late 80s fanboyhood – likes to mash things up a little bit, its films refusing to stay comfortably within one genre when they can occupy two or more simultaneously. So as well as being a sex comedy, Vulgaria is also a broad satirical take on the HK film industry itself. Some critics have objected to the way Ben Affleck’s Argo shows Hollywood being massively in love with itself: those critics have probably never seen a Hong Kong movie, which can frequently include post-modern references to the country’s movie stars and directors, even in period pieces.
You get the measure of Vulgaria in its opening scene. Film producer To Wai-Cheung (Chapman To) is giving a Q&A at a film school, and is asked what the role of a movie producer actually is. The best short answer he can give is this: a film producer serves the same purpose as pubic hair, reducing the friction between the various parts that are clashing against each other. When pressed for a longer answer, he proceeds to tell the story of his most recent production, but ominously warns the school that this must go no further than this room…
As a producer, To has to get money from any source he can. So when a call comes through from a friend on the Mainland saying he has a potential investor, To immediately heads off to investigate. The investor turns out to be crime boss Tyrannosaurus (Ronald Cheng), who has a wodge of money he wants to get rid of, and a very specific vision of what he wants to see on screen: a remake of a mid-seventies Shaw Brothers porno called Confessions Of A Concubine. Problem is, Tyrannosaurus wants the original star of the film, Susan Shaw (Siu Yam-yam), to play the same role in the remake: and everyone apart from him can see that her best days are long behind her.
Still, To takes on the challenge. He has to: he needs the money to pay for a messy divorce and custody battle, and there’s also the small matter of the appalling indiscretion that may or may not have taken place during his drunken meeting with Tyrannosaurus. Inevitably, though, the hiring of Susan Shaw is merely the first of the many obstacles the project encounters. To’s director is running an illegal gambling operation, complete with crèche. His male star has a crippling phobia that his genitals are going to be mangled during the shoot (he’s Hiro Hayama from 3D Sex And Zen, so he has past experience in these matters). And his relationship with starlet Popping Candy (Dada Chan) could either bring the movie back from the brink of disaster, or push it over completely.
Pang Ho-Cheung’s film lays out its stall in its title: Vulgaria’s modus operandi is to cross every possible boundary of taste that it can, staring you firmly in the eye as it does so. It’s the sort of thing that could be utterly unpleasant or cheekily rude, depending entirely on how the people involved choose to handle the material. Happily, Vulgaria is on the ‘cheekily rude’ side throughout. Unlike, say, the Sex & Zen films, there’s nothing here that gets laughs from the sexual humiliation of women. (See also: the trailer for the original Confessions Of A Concubine, which showcases that whole penetration-with-foreign-objects trope that’s so worryingly popular.) It’s not too much of a spoiler to reveal that only one person undergoes sexual humiliation in this film, and he isn’t female.
Another thing that makes the film more palatable is the whole Hong Kong in-jokiness of it. As you may have noticed from the previous paragraph, Confessions Of A Concubine is a real film: Siu Yam-Yam was its real star: Hiro Hayama is her male equivalent in today’s dirty movies. Vulgaria shows the grubbier end of the Hong Kong film industry taking a long hard look at itself and laughing hysterically at what it sees. Anyone who’s familiar with these films will get a whole other layer of amusement above what’s there on the surface.
The in-jokes extend beyond the film industry, though, out to Hong Kong as a whole. The film has caused quite an uproar in Mainland China, where they’ve taken its full-on rudeness incredibly badly. Recently, a big government essay prize was presented to a piece entirely dedicated to slagging off Vulgaria, complaining about its patronising attitude to Hong Kong’s elders and betters. Mainlanders are depicted as being either criminals or idiots, obsessed with inedible food and sexual perversion. The essay puts forward the shocking conclusion that this is a film made by Hong Kong people purely for themselves, with no regard to what the Mainland thinks.
And suddenly, you realise the biggest thing that a Hong Kong audience is taking away from this film: nostalgia. Because they used to make movies like that all the time. Look at any contemporary Hong Kong film made between the early 90s and the 1997 handover, and you’ll see all sorts of references being made to the uncertainty of the post-handover regime. After 1997, those references disappeared from the territory’s movies almost entirely, with only the occasional indie director like Fruit Chan daring to address the issues coming out of the transition. Vulgaria seems to me like the first true post-handover film: fifteen years after control was transferred, this is Hong Kong thinking it’s finally safe to blow a long, sustained raspberry in China’s direction.
Is this a film that only Hong Kong audiences can appreciate? Far from it, I think: though it’s a shame that it’s going straight to DVD over here, as my experience at a theatrical preview suggests that Vulgaria is the sort of comedy that thrives when it plays to a full room. But even in front of your TV, there’s a lot to enjoy. The performances are just broad enough throughout, with Chapman To finally proving himself as leading man material after years of highly noticeable bit parts. The rudeness is just broad enough too, with plenty of bilingual crudity and visuals that fit comfortably inside a UK 15 certificate. It’s all over in a tidy 90 minutes, like the classic HK flicks of old: but unlike those, there’s a delightful charm that keeps you smiling all through the dirtiest bits. Although I’m still concerned by the credit at the end for something calling itself the Endless Love Veterinary Centre.
Vulgaria is out now on DVD and Blu-ray from Third Window Films.
Spank The Monkey is currently trying to persuade the Mostly Film editor that a review of the HK premiere of 4D Sex And Zen would be a good idea.