Film Review: Vulgaria

A producer goes to bizarre lengths to complete a soft-core film in this coarse, exuberant Hong Kong comedy.

A nonstop barrage of sex and ethnic jokes, Vulgaria more than lives up to its name. What's surprising is how endearing this comedy about a sad-sack film producer can be. Shot in 12 days and largely improvised, Vulgaria was an immediate hit in Hong Kong—the second of the year for director and co-writer Pang Ho-Cheung after his Love in the Buff. It's a bit less accessible than that film, but Vulgaria is just too gross and funny to pass up.

The story unfolds during a lecture at a film school, as visiting producer To Wai-cheung (Chapman To) tells students how he put together his latest movie. Flashbacks explain how colleague Lui Wing-ching (a deadpan and very funny Simon Loui) introduced To to "Tyrannosaurus" (Ronald Cheng), a flamboyant, monomaniacal gangster from the Guangxi province.

The ensuing dinner banquet is one of the film's highlights, as Tyrannosaurus cajoles an increasingly drunk To into remaking the 1970s soft-core hit Confessions of a Concubine. First, To must endure dishes like braised rabbit head and deep-fried family of field mice. (The wonderful character actor Lam Suet encourages the producer to "eat the mother first.") Tyrannosaurus orders To to cast Yum Yum Shaw (Susan Shaw, gamely playing herself), the original star of Concubine. To prove his sincerity, To is then forced to have sex with a mule.

Yes, Vulgaria does go that far, although Pang finds a hilarious way to shoot the scene. Interrupting his story to discuss things like product placement, To tells the students how he proceeded with Confession of Two Concubines. Since Yum Yum is pushing 70, To hires model Tsui Ka-yan (Dada Chen) as her body double. For the male lead, he hires Hiro Hayama (playing himself), star of the notorious 3D Sex and Zen.

To must fend off a sexual-harassment suit (a quick cameo by Miriam Yeung) and his ex-wife's (played by To's real-life wife Kristal Tin) alimony demands. On the plus side, he discovers why Tsui is nicknamed "Popping Candy," and learns her plans for marketing a "How to Masturbate" videogame.

An engaging "everyman," To uses his wide eyes and dumbfounded expressions to make the raunchiest jokes seem somehow innocent. He's more than matched by Dada Chen, a former model whose obvious smarts and easygoing sexuality should make her a star. The supporting cast is uniformly strong, with Ronald Cheng a standout as the kind of gangster who shows off a sequin-covered jacket with the line, "How can you not dress up for an execution?"

Vulgaria is filled with in-jokes about the Hong Kong film industry and Cantonese-based puns that don't translate well—like how To's secretary mis-hears "nosedive" as a lesbian slur. Pang's actors deliver their lines at breakneck speed, so the film can be hard to follow. And some scenes are more miss than hit, probably a result of Pang's rushed schedule.

Even with its faults, Vulgaria is a first-rate comedy that manages to combine jaw-dropping sleaze with genuine, feel-good sentiment.