Review: Vulgaria (2012)

Vulgaria

低俗喜剧

Hong Kong, 2012, colour, 2.35:1, 92 mins.

Director: Peng Haoxiang 彭浩翔 [Pang Ho-cheung].

Rating: 6/10.

Rough-and-ready satire of low-end Hong Kong filmmaking is what it is, and no more.

STORY

Hong Kong, the present day. Well-known film producer Du Huizhang (Du Wenze) gives a master class to students at a university, moderated by a professor, Zheng (Zheng Danrui). Asked about product placement, he tells a story in which his pitch to an insurance company was screwed up by his assistant, overseas Chinese Liu Qian’er (Xue Kaiqi), wrongly altering his presentation. On the subject of raising finance, he recounts a memorable dinner in Beihai, Guangxi province, China, with a potential investor, gangster Tyrannosaurus (Zheng Zhongji), who wanted him to remake his favourite erotic costume drama from his youth, Confession of a Concubine 官人我要 (1976), with the same actress, Shao Yinyin. Tyrannosaurus suggested the title Confessions of Two Concubines 官人我又要. Back in Hong Kong, Du Huizhang couldn’t persuade Shao Yinyin (Shao Yinyin), now in her 60s, to take the part; but he got an old friend, Zhao Yongda (Zou Kaiguang), then running an illegal gambling den, to agree to direct. Du Huizhang was behind on his alimony payments to his ex-wife, barrister Zeng Lifen (Tian Ruini); when she told him to look after their young daughter Du Xiaojuan (Chen Peiyan) while she was on a business trip to Shanghai, Du Huizhang was helped by wannabe starlet Xu Jiaxin, aka Popping Candy (Chen Jing). Shao Yinyin finally agreed to take the part when Du Huizhang came up with the idea of using CGI to put her face on to Xu Jiaxin’s body in the sex scenes. Production was finally ready to start – but more problems were to follow.

REVIEW

Vulgaria 低俗喜剧 is what it is, and no more – a rough-and-ready comedy about the lower end of the film industry, shot on the hoof (in a rapid 12 days), absolutely Hong Kong in its humour (the dialogue only really works in Cantonese), and with not much structure beyond a series of sketches. Most of all, it’s a return to roots by maverick director Peng Haoxiang 彭浩翔 [Pang Ho-cheung], a deliberately free-wheeling blast of energy by a film-maker who seems to need to let off some steam at a time when he’s becoming too conventional mainstream (Love in a Puff 志明与春娇, 2010; Love in the Buff 春娇与志明, 2012). On that level, it works fine: the film has more hits than misses in its jokes, and the cameo-heavy structure keeps things moving. It’s exactly what its Chinese title says, “A Comedy in Poor Taste”.

Peng has been here before, from different angles: film-making satire (You Shoot, I Shoot 买凶拍人, 2001), erotic film-making (AV 青春梦工场, 2005) and racy dialogue (Love in a Puff). Vulgaria throws it all together and, from the film’s opening with a 10-second pause for easily offended viewers to leave the cinema, it wears its shock value on its sleeve. And that’s the biggest problem with the movie: as in Love in a Puff, Peng’s desire to shock too often gets in the way of the real humour. Only in one sequence does he really hit the mark and spend the time developing a whole setpiece: a dinner with a Mainland gangster financier, beautifully over-played by Hong Kong comedian Zheng Zhongji 郑中基 [Ronald Cheng], that sends up things like extravagance in New China, triad face-saving and Hong Kong kowtowing to Mainland money – and climaxes, literally, with a bang.

Most of the other scenes are more like brief comedy sketches littered with sex-jokes. Some work okay (such as a wannabe starlet describing her idea for a masturbation videogame), while others (Yang Qianhua 杨千嬅 [Miriam Yeung] cameoing as an equal opportunities officer) don’t spark as they should. The best stuff, in fact, is when Peng stops trying to shock his audience and lets the characters develop on their own: at its rather soft heart, the film is more about a divorced father trying to connect with his young daughter, or recover his self-esteem by launching a successful franchise, than an expose of the seamier side of Hong Kong film-making.

As the producer who’ll literally do anything to raise a dollar (including copulating with a mule), Du Wenze 杜汶泽 [Chapman To] is nicely cast, managing to hint at a real character beneath the producer-ly show-acting. (Du’s scenes with his real wife, actress Tian Ruini 田蕊妮, as his acerbic ex, also hit the spot.) And several of the cameos – 1970s sexpot Shao Yinyin 邵音音 [Susan Shaw] and Hong Kong-based Japanese actor Hayama Hiro 叶山豪, as themselves – have a good-humoured warmth. But the best performance, apart from Du’s, is by Shanghai-born model Chen Jing 陈靜, 23, aka E-Cup Goddess Dada 百果园E神, as a starlet with a special gift who’s known as Popping Candy 爆炸糖. Chen manages to blend sexiness, innocence and knowingness into a character who, in comic terms, is the most real one in the whole movie.

Technically, the film is nothing special, but that doesn’t get in the way of the antics.

CREDITS

Presented by Sun Entertainment Culture (HK). Produced by Making Film Productions (HK).

Script: Peng Haoxiang [Pang Ho-cheung], Lin Chaorong, Lu Yixin. Original story: Peng Haoxiang [Pang Ho-cheung]. Photography: Guan Zhiyao [Jason Kwan]. Editing: Li Donquan [Wenders Li]. Music: Huang Ailun [Alan Wong], Weng Weiying [Janet Yung]. Art direction: He Lelin. Costumes: He Lelin. Sound: Liang Zhida, Wang Qingsheng. Visual effects: Wang Yinghao.

Cast: Du Wenze [Chapman To] (Du Huizhang), Zheng Zhongji [Ronald Cheng] (Bao Long/Tyrannosaurus), Chen Jing (Xu Jiaxin/Baozhatang/Popping Candy), Shao Yinyin [Susan Shaw] (Shao Yinyin), Lei Yuyang (Lei Yongcheng), Zou Kaiguang [Matt Chow] (Zhao Yongda/Blackie), Tian Ruini (Zeng Lifen, Du Huizhang’s ex-wife), Hayama Hiro (himself), Lin Xue [Lam Suet] (Huatou, Tyrannosaurus’ sidekick at dinner), Zheng Danrui [Lawrence Cheng] (Zheng, professor), Xue Kaiqi [Fiona Sit] (Liu Qian’er/Quin, Du Huizhang’s assistant), Yang Qianhua [Miriam Yeung] (Miss Liang, equal-opportunities officer), Zhan Ruiwen [Jim Chim] (Junhuo Liu/Fireworks Liu), Gu Dezhao [Vincent Kok] (PlayBoy Condoms CEO), Miao Kexiu [Nora Miao] (Miss Zhang, schoolteacher), Yin Zhiwen [Jimmy Wan], Hu Jiale, Huang Lu, Peng Liwei (students at master class), Zhang Yuhua (Tyrannosaurus’ other sidekick), Chen Peiyan (Du Xiaojuan/Jacqueline, Du Huizhang’s daughter), Peng Liwei (Peng Liwei/Fat Wei), Li Manfen (Mrs. Liang), Zhou Junwei (policeman), Chen Kai’en (production manager), Peng Xiuhui (tealady), Liu Weiheng (Entertainment Scoop reporter), Tan Yunjia (Entertainment Scoop cameraman), Mai Lingling (hypnotist).

Premiere: Hong Kong Film Festival (Hong Kong Panorama), 27 Mar 2012.

Release: Hong Kong, 9 Aug 2012.

(Review originally published on Film Business Asia, 31 Jul 2012.)