NYAFF Review: Vulgaria


[For the month of July, we will be covering the New York Asian Film Festival and the (also New York-based) Japan Cuts Film Festival, which together form one of the largest showcases of Asian cinema in the world. For our NYAFF coverage, head over here. For Japan Cuts, here. Also, I apologize for the puns. None of them were intended.]

The opening of Vulgaria gives you a warning of what the film will be. It’s simply dialogue, explaining the sorts of things that will be featured over the next 90 minutes. Then they give you a ten second timer to leave the theater if you think you will be offended by any of those things. As far as I remember, though, they didn’t specifically mention having sex with a mule.

They really should have mentioned having sex with a mule. 

Chapman To in Vulgaria Hong Kong film NYAFF

Vulgaria (低俗喜剧)
Director: Pang Ho-cheung
Rating: NR
Country: Hong Kong

I want to say that Vulgaria is a movie about making movies, but it’s really not. It’s a movie about selling movies. Protagonist To Wai-Cheung (Chapman To) is a film producer who has been asked to give a talk to a university class of would-be producers. That is the framing narrative of the film. It all comes back to Wai-Cheung talking to a group of students, most of whom don’t think very highly of him. But even though that’s where the film is technically taking place, the story he tells about producing his latest film goes far beyond that.

First up, it’s important to say that Wai-Cheung only makes Category III films. In Hong Kong, a Category III film is defined as one that: “No persons younger than 18 years of age are permitted to rent, purchase, or watch this film in the cinema” (thanks Wikipedia!), and it includes everything from Riki-Oh: The Story of Ricky to what is essentially pornography. In fact, it is quite likely that Vulgaria itself qualifies as a Category III film (although not being part of the Hong Kong censorship board means I can’t say for sure). This gives him a different view of things than someone working on big budget projects. He has to work even harder and degrade himself even more fully in order to get funding.

And degrade himself he does. He really, really does. But aside from the physically and emotionally degrading acts he has to perform, Wai-Cheung is just a very unfortunate guy. On a personal level, his lawyer wife hates him and doesn’t want him to ever see his daughter, his assistant speaks in a strange English/Cantonese hybrid which leads to some very significant misunderstandings, he drunkenly agrees to produce a remake of a decades-old porno starring the same person for a sexually deviant gang boss, and has some major issues with basically every single one of his relationships.

Chapman To and Dada Chan in Vulgaria Hong Kong film

If you haven’t picked up on it yet, you need to realize that Vulgaria is absolutely bizarre. From beginning to end, I never knew what amazing and crazy thing was going to happen next. More importantly, I was never disappointed when it happened. I was laughing constantly throughout the film, except in the few moments where I wasn’t supposed to be, and I reacted appropriately to those as well. It was actually weird how effective the film was in those few moments when it decided to be soul-crushing. There weren’t many, but they still fit in with the generally crazy tone of everything. Generally though, the movie is very entertaining. I wish I could just give you a list of some of the zanier moments in lieu of a review, because that would be enough for you to know whether you want to see it or not, but that would spoil the surprise for you, and I couldn’t do that. I can simply say that there are a lot of things you will never see coming.

On that note, Vulgaria is a surprisingly clean movie. The NYAFF description page jokingly says that the film is presented “in Cantonese and Profanity with English subtitles,” and that is an apt description. The language in the film is definitely profane. Right from the start, Wai-Cheung states that his job is equivalent to that of pubic hair, in the process explaining what the evolutionary benefit of pubic hair is (something I was previously unaware of), and setting the tone for the film. In fact, he even goes so far as to call himself a “pube” rather than a “producer,” much to the chagrin of the teacher moderating his presentation. It goes well beyond that, and it only gets dirtier as the film progresses.

Vulgaria NYAFF Chapman To getting ready to have sex with a mule

But onscreen there is nothing particularly offensive. There is not a trace of nudity (unless you think mules should wear clothing), and there is actually no real sex onscreen or off. There are some humping motions, for sure, and there’s a bit of head-bobbing (which has some pretty clear implications), but that’s nothing particularly shocking.

There are people who will not like Vulgaria. Some people will be turned-off by its generally crass nature, and chances are everybody will be offended at some point or another, or feel bad about laughing at a particular joke. The comedy is more cerebral than you might think, so it’s not a “Turn your brain off” kind of movie, but if you can just sit back, relax, and let yourself laugh and laugh and laugh, you will have an awesome time with this film. 

Also, make sure you stay after the credits. Seriously. You will hate yourself forever if you miss what happens next.

[Vulgaria is the Opening Night Film of the New York Asian Film Festival. You can see it at the Walter Reade Theater at Lincoln Center on Friday, June 29th at 8:30 PM. Director Pang Ho-cheung will be in attendance.]

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