Vulgaria announces its nature proudly, with a flashy on-screen graphic warning that what we’re about to witness is likely to be extremely offensive and that those of a more delicate disposition should use the upcoming ten seconds to vacate the cinema as quickly as possible; those who choose to stay, well, you only have yourselves to blame. By turns a raucously funny, bawdy comedy and a love letter come scathing indictment of the Hong Kong film industry, Vulgaria is hardly as uncomplicated as its simple synopsis implies yet on the surface its comedic prowess is not to be denied.
To (Chapman To) is a down on his luck yet scrappy producer who can’t seem to come within yards of anything that’s remotely like a hit. Behind on his alimony payments and threatened with the possibility of not seeing his daughter for a long period of time, he knows he needs a hit and fast. Reluctantly, he agrees to meet the mainland contact of a friend who’s reportedly keen to invest. Making the trek up north, To and his friend are invited to dinner with Tyrannosaurus - local Triad chief and all round scary guy. If that wasn’t bad enough, Tyrannosaurus is very keen on his local ‘delicacies’ and unwilling to make a deal until his guests have sampled the unpalatable cuisine. After also sampling rather a lot of the local alcohol, To and his friend are forced to participate in a degrading and possibly illegal act which the protagonist is later unable to reliably recall. Finally, Tyrannosaurus agrees, but, he only wants to make one very particular film - a remake of a teenage favourite. Which would be fine if his favourite movie wasn’t Confessions of a Concubine and he didn’t insist on it starring his boyhood crush Yum Yum Shaw who is obviously thirty years older and... how can we put this delicately? She has not aged well.
Throw into the mix a sexual harassment suit from his secretary, his daughter’s school problems, his domineering ex-wife and a burgeoning romance with a young lady by the name of Popping Candy and To’s life just became an awful lot more complicated. Luckily though, To is the sort embrace the chaos with good humour and he’s not about to back down without a fight. He’s unscrupulous, yes, but there are lines he won’t cross (even if he needs to think about it for a really long time). As a producer he’s slightly inept and unprepared - perhaps its not surprising he can’t seem to find clients when he makes disastrous pitches like the one he makes to an insurance firm where he suggests lending their name to that of a super-evil corporation who’ve been secretly funding Al Qaeda in return for admission of culpability for aircraft disasters so that they won’t have to pay out any insurance. It’s an odd sort of compliment, but Chapman To’s performance strikes just the right note of total cluelessness and plucky charm that you instantly want him to succeed and get his once in a lifetime hit - even if it is with the dubious sounding Confessions of Two Concubines.
Right from his first answer during the question and answer session he’s giving for some film students, it’s obvious To has a problem with boundaries, or specifically the lack of them. Much to the horror of his interviewer, To compares the role of the producer to that of pubic hair - designed to ease the friction between two opposing bodies (the money men and the creatives) so that something beautiful may be created. This pretty much sets the tone for much of the film, which features some incredibly lewd wordplay and innuendo. Fortunately or unfortunately depending on your point of view, this is no Carry on Caligula - the vulgarity remains strictly verbal and aspects of the physical occur strictly offscreen. Although the marketing might suggest a little more smut than the film actually offers, there is no actual nudity or explicit sexual content to be found within the frame. If such a thing can be said, Vulgaria is tastefully crude - chock full of the lowest, dirtiest jokes you can imagine, but literally all mouth and no trousers.
However, Vulgaria is undoubtedly a very clever film both in its approach and in the way it manages to pack in some fairly subversive ideas. Firstly, that Hong Kong filmmaking is suffering because film makers have to go cap in hand to mainlanders and accept their stricter censorship concerns and commercial demands. Alongside that however, it also pokes fun at the lower end of Hong Kong cinema including a very game performance from Hiro Hayama, ‘star’ of 3D Sex and Zen as well as a few digs about Hong Kongers’ lack of cinema etiquette. Whatever else it is, it’s certainly not afraid to laugh at itself. What’s most impressive though is the degree of warmth in the depiction of the relationship between To and his daughter which in many ways helps to anchor the film and provide a counterpoint to the otherwise vulgar goings-on. Sense of humour is a subjective thing and Vulgaria will undoubtedly be more to some tastes than others, but those who like their comedy a little on the naughtier side will find more than their fair share of laughs in Vulgaria.