As a rule of thumb, comedy in Chinese and Hong Kong cinema tends to have a light touch. Instead of anything akin to the more raunchy Western stylings, Chinese territories typically favour slapstick and mischievous puns, a playful sense of humour at large. To that end, Sam Voutas’ 2010 film Red Light Revolution was something of a release as the nation’s “first sex shop comedy”. That tradition is followed by what can only be described as the natural extension of that conceit with a film set in the world of category III films – 18 rated in other words, films that include sex and extreme violence. This film is Pang Ho-Cheung’s Vulgaria.
As the film opens Wai-Cheung (Chapman To) is sat at the front of a university lecture theatre talking to students about what it takes to be a film producer. Struggling to win anybody over, one student questions Chapman To saying, what have you ever had to sacrifice as a producer? A question that turns the narrative over to a flashback structure which details a particularly difficult shoot, where a triad gangster wants to remake an adult movie with a thread of incredibly vulgar demands.
Western audiences are used to the type of comedy where anything goes; to that end, Vulgaria doesn’t particularly do anything out of the ordinary. It’s just as funny or unfunny as anything people will already be familiar with. Even so, there are certain set-pieces which are still audacious, doubly so given its status as a Chinese production. The marquee moments for many will center on a meal where the producer meets his triad financiers. In this scene, all manner of unsavoury dishes are wheeled out, with the so-called centerpiece being a living breathing mule. Likewise, the Triad Boss, Brother Tyrannosaurus (Ronald Cheng) sees the script throw caution to the wind with as a character that is constantly outrageous with his demands; it’s a performance where the actor is visibly enjoying themselves. Dada Chan’s Popping Candy also has a similar standing in the film with her unique ‘talent’.
Audiences who see the appeal in a comedy constantly outdoing itself in the outrageousness stakes will find a lot to enjoy with Pang Ho-Cheung’s Vulgaria. However, that is not the true strength of the film.As well as setting up some of the most shocking characters Chinese eyes will have seen, Vulgaria is also a comedy about the Hong Kong film industry. With that, the film is a fascinating and more importantly funny expose into what it takes to be a producer in today’s industry. In these scenes, the film depicts just how difficult it is to finance a film and just how much you have to stoke the ego of your potential financiers. For every psychotic triad boss, there is a multi-million dollar organisation, which brings about the zenith for comedy in Vulgaria – a simple PowerPoint presentation. With this aspect of the film, Pang Ho-Cheung playfully satirizes the state of the Hong Kong film industry and given the state of that industry, that is far braver than any potential bestiality.
The secondary story arc adds a level of characterization that isn’t traditionally favored in such comedies. Chapman To has divorced his wife with his wife keeping his daughter away from him, this aspect of the film turns a crude comedy into something far sweeter and more innocent. The interaction between father and daughter is heart-warming; furthermore, these fleeting interactions give greater depth to characters and the film at large. This wild contrast may seem like a grab bag of different styles thrown about in hope that something hits, however just like Korean cinema has shown us the Asian pallet has gone a great deal of a ways to mastering such tonal skews. Vulgaria has something for every modern comedy fan; it’s filthy, satirical and has a heart of pure gold.