Vulgarity, profanity and popping candy are the order of the day in Pang Ho-Cheung’s (Dream Home, Love in a Puff) latest box-office smash, not only a number one box-office hit back home but also one of the highest grossing Hong Kong films of 2012. A voice over warns of impending profanity, in itself a blessing and a curse, which sets the scene for smart-arsed cynicism, outrageous comedy and the occasional unsuspecting mule.
Pang's latest effort was filmed in just twelve days on a shoestring budget, and much of the dialogue was written or improvised on set, which didn’t prevent it from acquiring a number of international accolades as well as three nominations at the 49th Golden Horse Awards, namely Best Actor (Chapman To), Best Supporting Actor (Ronald Cheng) and Best Supporting Actress (Dada Chan).
To (Chapman To), a long-time movie producer, has yet to produce anything resembling a hit. Not that his venomous ex-wife (a fantastically mean-spirited Kristal Tin) would want to bring that up at every opportunity. Beset by financial troubles, he is desperate for money, and what’s more, his alimony-seeking ex-wife is dangling their lively young daughter over his head like an unattainable carrot.
To’s daughter still has complete faith in her father though, and somewhat hastily, he makes her a promise he might not keep, insisting that she’ll see him on her favourite movie show promoting his new film. Which means To needs to ‘make nice’ with an investor, and as luck would have it, Guangxi triad gang leader Tyrannosaurus (a scene stealing Ronald Cheng) might just hold the key. That’s if they can get past his unusual taste in food and an unsettling passion for animal welfare.
Tyrannosaurus has a few conditions of his own (including the films longest running joke), one of which is the insistence that they cast his childhood idol Yum Yum Shaw (Susan Shaw) in the lead role. The problem being, Confessions of Two Concubines is a long-delayed follow up to Tyrannosaurus’ favourite porn film, and Yum Yum Shaw currently resides on the furthest moon from the prime of her life.
He’ll be needing a new leading lady to fill in the gaps, or in this case pretty much everything from the shoulders down, and he’ll find it in the ever so heavenly form of starlet in waiting, Miss Popping Candy (Dada Chen). Great with her clothes on, potentially great with her clothes off (much of Vulgaria is left to the imagination), Popping Candy has a soft spot for To’s daughter, a surprisingly affecting relationship with To, and a unique creativity best left for you to discover when the time is right.
What follows is a hit and miss affair that drags its heels over tried and tested ground (a few gags outstay their welcome and one cameo smacks of over-indulgence) but makes up for the occasional misfire with a sprinkling of smart dialogue and an infectious cast that elevates the movie above and beyond potential pitfalls of profanity – so much easier to type than say.
The voice-over warning that precedes Vulgaria is a neat touch, setting a smart-arsed, breezy, self-mocking tone for the rest of the movie to embrace, but for all its promise of ‘vulgar comedy’ too much of Pang’s latest is left to the imagination. Some scenes drag on for far too long while others lack true definition, resulting in a messy movie experience that doesn’t quite tickle the funny bone as often as it should. There are still gems waiting to be discovered though, if you can forgive the occasional lack of focus. Not least the appearance of a down on his luck director who runs a gambling den with childcare facilities.
To’s immaculate comic timing goes someway to correcting any lapse in concentration, as does Ronald Cheng’s scene stealing dinosaur who’s passion for food, film and bestiality shakes the glass of every park he walks in. The rest of the cast are on form too, particularly the perky talents of Dada Chen, whose outstanding assets extend a whole lot further than one might anticipate. Chen brings much needed heart to the role of Popping Candy, and quieter moments are laced with unexpected levels of warmth.
At the end of the day, your appreciation of Vulgaria very much depends upon your fondness for profanity, feelings towards the Hong Kong film industry, and whether or not you can commit to the dirtiest, sleaziest side of your imagination. If you’ve just ticked all three boxes you’re sure to have a whale of a time, but for all its crudity, youthful enthusiasm and promise, Vulgaria doesn’t quite equal the some of its parts. AW