It’s generally a good rule of thumb to get things started with a bang, be it a film, a dinner, a concert, etc. In the case of a film festival, I’m always amazed at some of the drab films that get chosen to open events that are supposedly consecrated to the celebration of the medium. I recall the Dublin International Film Festivals of years past (I used to go to every year when I was based there); one that comes to mind was 2007 when the event opened with Jindabyne (2006), a handsome and languid arthouse circuit film from down under starring Ireland’s own Gabriel Byrne. Despite being a good film, it was hardly the kind of work that was going to get me pumped up about cinema for a full 10-day event.
You should start as you mean to continue and as far as a festival is concerned, good does not always mean right. While looking at this year’s New York Asian Film Festival (NYAFF) lineup, a little grin curled up my lips as I saw Pang Ho-cheung’s Vulgaria front and center. I was lucky to catch it earlier this year at the Udine Far East Film Festival (FEFF) and while it didn’t open that event (that honour went to Sunny, another strong kick-off choice), by all accounts it brought down the house. I say that because I had to catch in the video library but boy did I wish I could have seen it with a crowd.
Pang’s feature is uproarious, brief and yes, very vulgar. However, the marvel of the film is that it is never gratuitous; it is anarchic but also strangely warm and charming. It’s also an Asian film lover’s dream, full of big winks to lovers of Hong Kong cinema, which makes it the perfect pick for this year’s NYAFF, an event which has come to be known as the North America’s most reliable source of Far East Asian film.
Another reason why it fits the slot is that it is a film about filmmaking, which always whets my whistle. A producer of Category III films, To Wai-Cheung (Chapman To) is giving a talk to film students about the film trade and launches into a description of the making of his most recent work, an erotic sequel to a 70s hit starring an aging porn star and bankrolled by a depraved mob boss.
Pang gets the film going very quickly and the pace never drops, almost everything is played for laughs and nothing is off limits. Central to the film’s success is its simplicity and its anchoring performance from veteran performer Chapman To, whose idiosyncratic style of bravado, cockiness, obsequiousness, and rapid fire dialog is very well served by the film’s almost surreal setting. Here, he plays to his strengths and Pang knows exactly what to do with him.
Now the film can be quite shocking, but as I said earlier it is also very charming. Normally, these are two seemingly difficult traits to reconcile, but this is where Pang works his magic. His films are fast and generally don’t allow for spectators to catch their breath. Similarly, Vulgaria is very short and very entertaining. Just like in 2006’s masterful American indie Shortbus from James Cameron Mitchell, he also gets the worst stuff out of the way first, after which you lose your ability to be shocked and will just succumb to fits of laughter.
My favorite sequence, and certainly the one everyone will remember, is the restaurant scene. It is the launching point for almost everything in the film and might be the funniest thing I’ve ever seen in a Hong Kong film. To is on great form here and the other character actors that fill out the sequence (like Suet Lam) are equally hilarious.
I daresay this won’t be everyone’s cup of tea but if you’ve ever enjoyed a midnight screening, this comes highly recommended. I briefly attended last year’s NYAFF but am too many thousands of miles away to take in the event this time around but I would be first in line for a chance to see Vulgaria again with an eager audience and especially on opening night!
Pierce Conran writes for Modern Korean Cinema, Twitch and currently lives in South Korea.