Tom Vick is curator of film at Freer|Sackler.
The 1997 handover of Hong Kong from England to China opened up a huge new market—1.3 billion strong—for Hong Kong movies. But reaching Chinese audiences requires compromise. Politically controversial topics must be avoided, for instance, and the sex and violence have to be toned down. Often, films are made in Mandarin, which means losing the Cantonese wordplay that gives Hong Kong comedies their punch.
While many Hong Kong filmmakers have accepted these terms in return for more lucrative paydays, others, like Pang Ho-Cheung, are flipping the script. His latest film, Vulgaria (which is being screened on June 14 and 16 as part of the Freer’s 18th Annual Made in Hong Kong Film Festival), is a flagrantly raunchy comedy. Chapman To stars as To Wai-Cheung, a movie producer who sheds his artistic integrity and eventually his dignity to make a softcore porn that he hopes will revive his career. From its opening scene, in which To regales aghast film students with a lengthy, obscene monologue about his job, it’s clear that Pang has no designs on the mainland market.
In this and other ways, Vulgaria is a throwback to the glory days of Hong Kong cinema. To’s project is a remake of the Shaw Brothers’ 1976 erotic film Confession of a Concubine. That film’s original star, Siu Yam-Yam (aka Yum Yum Shaw), gamely plays herself in Vulgaria, agreeing to appear in the new version (albeit with her head digitally attached to a younger actress’ body.) Shot on the fly without a complete script—as was done in the old days—Vulgaria bounces along with the anarchic energy of the Hui Brothers’ comedies of the ’70s and ’80s, flinging random subplots and absurd jokes in all directions.
Indulging in favorite Hong Kong pastimes such as making obscene puns and mocking mainlanders, Vulgaria is, like stinky tofu or fried chicken-feet, a local delicacy that will delight as many people as it disgusts. If, in recent years, people have complained that Hong Kong movies are becoming watered down, Pang’s filthy love letter to the city and its cinema may be an attempt to reclaim Hong Kong’s distinctiveness, one dirty joke at a time.