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To (Chapman To Man-chak), a long-time film producer, has yet to produce anything resembling a hit. Beset by financial troubles, he has become desperate for money - so much so that he is unable to pay the alimony to his ex-wife (Kristal Tin). Despite his former spouse's bitterness, their daughter still clings onto her faith in him - and wishes to see him on TV once his new movie premieres. To is soon introduced to a potential Mainland Chinese investor, Tyrannosaurus (Ronald Cheng), by his buddy Lui Wing-shing (Simon Loui Yu-yeung). But Tyrannosaurus is not only the head of a Guangxi triad gang, he turns out to have very particular tastes in food and sex. Regardless, To is determined to woo this investor, even if it means giving into his every demands. Tyrannosaurus eventually tells them to cast his childhood idol Yum Yum Shaw (Susan Shaw) in a remake of a classic pornographic film. He even gives the film the title Confessions of Two Concubines. After receiving funding from ...Written by
Lewd, crude, and – as its title suggests – vulgar, Pang Ho-Cheung's satire of today's Hong Kong film industry is incisive, entertaining and very very funny
The one gesture of decency infant terrible Edmond Pang Ho-Cheung extends to his audience is in inserting a frank piece of consumer advice before his latest film begins proper. You have been warned - the film you are about to watch goes beyond the bounds of 'Parental Guidance'; in fact, you'll quite surely be reprimanded by your parents if they find out you've been watching such a film with coarse language and despicable behaviour. For the more sensitive members among the audience therefore, you have ten seconds to leave the cinema.
Everyone else who has stayed behind however will be in for a real treat – 'Vulgaria' is every bit as lewd, crude, low-brow, offensive, and deplorable as it promises to be. It is also very very funny, and though it may appear otherwise on the surface, very very smart. You see, Pang has here wisely exploited the inside-out perspective he has gained from his own personal experience and crystallised these observations into a flat-out lampoon of the current state of the Hong Kong- China film industry – and depending on which side of the territory you belong to, he has either hit a very raw nerve or a really sweet spot.
The numbers surely attest it – despite being shot on a shoestring budget over just 12 days, the movie has since surpassed Pang's own earlier mainstream romance 'Love in the Buff' to become the highest-grossing local movie in Hong Kong this year. Certainly, 'Vulgaria' has become something of a cultural zeitgeist given the current social climate on the island, especially the increasingly negative attitude that a large majority of the Hong Kong people hold against Mainland Chinese – and Pang's reflection of their effect on the local film industry is but a microcosm of the frustration and resentment that the locals feel in almost every tangible area be it jobs, transport and housing.
But rather than outrightly supporting his fellow Hong Kong citizens, Pang has deftly crafted a dark satire using the challenges faced by a mock struggling film producer To Wai-Chen (Chapman To) as he tries to find the right material and financing for his next project. On the one hand, To finds himself grovelling for sponsors to put their products inside his movie; on the other, his cut-rate go-to director Blackie Tak (Matt Chow) vehemently refuses any form of product placement. Help comes in the form of his best buddy Liu (Simon Loui), who hooks him up with a Mainland businessperson called Tyrannosaurus (Ronald Cheng) looking to invest in a new motion picture.
To his horror, Tyrannosaurus turns out to be a connoisseur of exotic animals and animal genitals, but dinner is only the start of To's nightmare when he and Liu are forced to have sex with a mule after for their host's amusement. Inspired by his favourite childhood porn film, the 1976 Shaw Brothers' 'Confessions of a Concubine', Tyrannosaurus insists To remake the movie and get the original's star Yum Yum Shaw (Susan Shaw playing herself) to reprise her role - no matter what most, if not all, other Cat III film audiences would think of seeing the 60- plus year old Shaw nude.
To's solution? Using CGI to superimpose Shaw's face onto the body of a young busty aspiring model/ actress Popping Candy (Dada Chen, best known for 'Lan Kwai Fong'), the latter's unusual name in fact alluding to her most extraordinary skill of fellatio. That in itself is one of the film's highlights, and so is Hiro Hayama's cameo appearance that riffs on his infamous 'Sex and Zen 3D' leading act as well as an extended gag involving accusations of sexual harassment brought upon To by his assistant (Fiona Sit) that is only half as funny in Mandarin.
Besides the film industry, Pang also references other social phenomena, such as the relentless pursuit for academic excellence that parents put their children through (sound familiar?) and, by a clever twist towards the end, the pervasiveness and influence of social media in today's interconnected world. Admittedly, the sum of all these parts do not cohere as well, but the scattershot nature of the film – a consequence of filming on an incomplete script and a rushed production schedule – fits the rawness and crudeness of its content perfectly. Pang holds it all together with an overarching setting that sees To sharing his experience with a group of film students at a lecture, and even manages to pack in a moving emotional arc of To's estranged relationship with his wife (Crystal Tin) and daughter.
With 'Vulgaria', Pang has also given Chapman To one of his best roles in recent roles that take advantage of his spot-on comic timing to propel him firmly into leading-man status. To plays his character with just the right mix of incredulity and resignation, and the few scenes he shares with his real-life wife Tin also manage to be surprisingly touching. Cheng shines too in an over-the-top role as Tyrannosaurus, and the rest of the ensemble supporting cast (that were probably all willing to do Pang a favour considering his rising clout) also add much life to the parody.
But the bulk of the credit should be Pang's, this being his second movie to be released this year, both of which – 'Love in the Buff' and this – happen to be our picks for the best Hong Kong films you'll see this year. It's no coincidence that the socially conscious filmmaker has found both critical and also commercial success with both films, considering how socially heightened Hong Kong society has been in recent months. Even though its off-colour ribald jokes may give the impression that Pang is pandering to the lowest common denominator, 'Vulgaria' is really much more clever and much more ingenious than it appears – and this is one sharp skewer of the current state of the local film industry that any discerning moviegoer will definitely enjoy.
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