Semi-improvised, crass comedy may signal a new direction for Hong Kong cinema.
In the past 18 months Chinese-speaking cinemagoers have shunned martial arts movies and historical dramas, instead favouring home-grown romantic comedies. But are they ready to embrace a comedy which portrays porn stars and features a running joke about having sex with a donkey?
Writer-director Pang Ho Cheung’s Vulgaria, the saga of a producer who’s forced to make a skin flick to satisfy a mobster, serves up all that plus boob jokes and references to oral sex, Al Qaeda and stuffing a cow’s vagina in the protagonist’s mouth.
Chinese-speaking audiences tend to be a conservative lot so it will be fascinating to see how they respond when the film opens in Australia on July 13 via China Lion Film Distribution and in Hong Kong in August.
Mick Robbins, who runs China Lion in Australia, is confident the satire will appeal to Chinese-speakers and believes it has the potential to crossover to art houses. “It’s a really black comedy, very different from anything we’ve released,” said Robbins, whose firm launched in Oz in November 2010, founded by former Roadshow executive Milt Barlow and Jiang Yanming, a veteran Chinese producer. China Lion releases around a dozen films annually in the US.
In Australia the distributor has an exclusive arrangement with Event Cinemas in Sydney (typically booking George Street, Macquarie and Burwood), Brisbane (Myer Centre and Garden City Mount Gravatt) and Perth (Innaloo). In Melbourne it’s linked with Cinema Nova.
If Robbins wants to take Vulgaria into art houses he’ll first need to talk to executives at Event Cinemas but he thinks they would be receptive.
Pang’s film had its world premiere at the Hong Kong International Film Festival in March. Hailing the film as “lewd, crude and flat-out hilarious,” Twitch Film’s James Marsh observed, “Where there is a gag to be made, Pang goes for it in the most vulgar of manners possible and there is no better on-screen cypher than Chapman To for Pang's particular brand of acerbic wit, and the actor goes shamelessly all-out in his role as the increasingly desperate filmmaker. “
The Hollywood Reporter’s Deborah Young declared, “Even if this odyssey about a debt-ridden film producer who stoops as low as you can go to finance his next picture – a porn flick bankrolled by a gangster – it isn’t going to replace Mel Brooks’ The Producers as sub-genre leader anytime soon; it’s smooth and funny enough to win its own coterie of admirers.
“The film’s extreme spontaneity is a result of the off-the-cuff way it was made in twelve days on a mini-budget, with the screenwriters penning scenes and actors improvising as they went along. The zippy pace, cascades of characters and droll performances offer more proof of the director’s versatility and grasp of genres.”
Screen Daily’s Edmund Lee sparked to a “pitch-black comedy whose central mystery concerns whether its protagonist has had sexual intercourse(s) with a mule…This film-biz satire displays a reckless abandon in mentioning genitals – of humans and other species – as frequently as it possibly can.”
Reverting to more conventional genres, China Lion launches on June 14 Double Trouble, a buddy cop action-comedy starring Jaycee Chan, 29-year-old son of Jackie Chan who announced his retirement from acting in action movies at last month’s Cannes Film Festival.
Supernatural thriller Painted Skin Resurrection 3D debuts on June 28; it’s the sequel to 2008’s Painted Skin. Also on its slate are Hong Kong coming-of-age drama Starry Starry Night, Taiwanese romantic comedies Girlfriend Boyfriend and When a Wolf Falls in Love with a Sheep, and warlord actioner The Bullet Vanishes.
Noting the change in Chinese cinemagoers’ tastes, Robbins said that special-effects laden action movies such as The Sorcerer and the White Snake and Flying Swords of Dragon Gate 3D under-performed while Pang Ho Cheung’s romantic comedy Love in the Buff was a hit.