Despite being Hong Kong’s most successful homegrown movie of 2012, Vulgaria is hardly what you would describe as blockbuster material. It was shot in less than a fortnight, was mostly improvised and was the second of two features to have been directed that year by Pang Ho-cheung (perhaps best-known over here for Dream House, previously his only film to have earned a UK DVD release). If there’s a suggestion, therefore, that this is a throwaway work then so be it. Yet clearly it must have touched a very particular nerve in order to achieve such spectacular box office receipts.
Vulgaria is a comedy and a somewhat crude one at that, as the title suggests. The film opens with a 10-second warning to audiences of the kind previously employed by William Castle for Homicidal (a pre-climax ‘fright break’ allowing cinemagoers a full refund if they were too scared to continue) or Gaspar Noé for Seul contre tous (“You have 30 seconds to leave the cinema”). In Noé’s case he was most likely being serious – the scenes which followed require a strong stomach – though I suspect that Pang is more closely aping the gimmicky showmanship of Castle. It’s not a genuine warning; it’s a tongue-in-cheek one. Yes, there will be strong language and running gags about blow jobs, bestiality and a Wii game intended to improve your handjob technique. But it’s all far too silly to upset: schoolboy humour in a film made by adults.
The jokes are attached to a behind-the-scenes tale of movie production. Vulgaria is framed by a Q&A session between Chapman To’s producer and a roomful of film studies students in which the topic of discussion is his latest venture, Confessions of Two Concubines. He regales his audience in an episodic fashion, recounting how he raised the cash, cast his leads and overcame all manner of difficulties once the cameras had rolled. Needless to say, the choppy structure goes hand-in-hand with the improvisatory nature of the film: Pang has come up with a series of situations – for example, potential Triad financiers persuading To to engage in sexual congress with a mule – and allowed his actors to the rest. The end results can be somewhat laboured at times, but the hit-to-miss ratio is in mostly good health. For every bout of forced mugging there’s a genuinely funny gag or two.
Furthermore, Pang strikes the right comedic balance between bad taste and more considered satire. Alongside the knob gags and boob jokes he also takes great delight in sending up the Hong Kong film industry. Confessions of Two Concubines is a Category III movie and a remake of an old Shaw Brothers erotic picture from the mid-seventies, prompting game performances from Hiro Hayama (star of 3D Sex and Zen: Extreme Ecstasy) and Yum-Yum Shaw (aka Susan Shaw, a staple of those seventies sexploitation pics) as themselves. Their presence perhaps points up that the ribbing is never too vicious, whilst those without an extensive know-how of Hong Kong filmmaking should content themselves with the knowledge that not all of the gags require insider insight. After all, enjoyment of Mel Brooks’ The Producers (which similarly revelled in its own bad taste) hardly demanded a close acquaintance with the inner-workings of Off-Broadway.
Vulgaria’s most winning aspect also sums up the film itself quite nicely. In the lead role To displays the same kind of idiot charm that made him such an agreeable presence in his films for Andrew Lau and Alan Mak (most notably the supporting turns in the Infernal Affairs trilogy and Initial D). His characters are far from perfect, but there’s something really quite loveable about them and that’s just as true of Vulgaria’s producer figure. In fact, much the same can be said of the movie as a whole. At times it may be a tad sloppy or a little too forced in its efforts to make us laugh, but ultimately it wins us over. It’s an incredibly likeable movie, really quite enjoyable and oftentimes very funny. For a low-budget semi-improvised comedy made in under a fortnight that’s not a bad achievement at all.
Vulgaria has been released onto UK Blu-ray this week courtesy of Third Window Films. (A separate DVD edition is also available.) The film is presented in its original 2.35:1 aspect ratio and encoded with a 1080p AVC transfer. Image quality is practically flawless – the picture is pristine, free of both any signs of damage or digital ill-effects. Clarity is superb and colour and contrast levels presumably as intended. The disc also faithfully recreates the slightly green-ish balance favoured by East Asian cinema. As for the soundtrack, that comes in its original Cantonese in DTS-HD MA form and with optional English subtitles. Again, there are no flaws to report, with both dialogue and musical accompaniment coming across crisp and clear.
Extras amount to a 10-minute ‘making of’ and the theatrical trailer. The former consists of a series of quick-fire conversations between Pang Ho-cheung and Chapman To on various themes, whether it’s the swearing in the movie or the casting. Tongue-in-cheek and really quite funny, these are far more entertaining than your usual ‘making of’ attachments with the slim running time going some way. Do note, however, that the translation of the film clips which break up Pang and To’s chats come with a slightly different translation to that used for the main feature, though I doubt you could argue for one being superior to the other. Given the rapid pace dialogue of Vulgaria it’s highly unlikely that any subtitle translation could do the film full justice.