The Hong Kong comedy Vulgaria—which screened recently at River East 21 and returns to town this week for two shows at the Gene Siskel Film Center—might strike some as a collection of dirty jokes. But in fact it's more a celebration of the dirty joke as a narrative form: the movie's structure and much of its detail evoke those lewd shaggy-dog stories we all heard in middle school but share less often as we get older. The plot hinges on several disgusting—and highly improbable—sex acts, but there's no on-screen sex or even nudity; instead director and cowriter Pang Ho-cheung emphasizes the ridiculous complications leading up to the dirty parts. Like a good storyteller playing off the enthusiasm of his listeners, he gets more inventive as he goes along, spinning out funny narrative digressions and plot twists that keep us on our toes.
One of Hong Kong's most popular comic writers, Pang made his name in 1998 with a best-selling novel about hit men that Johnnie To and Wai Ka-fai made into a successful film called Fulltime Killer. Yet as a filmmaker, Pang has proved himself skilled at finding humor in banal situations. His most characteristic film may be Trivial Matters (2007), a series of short sketches about commonplace sexual and romantic anxieties. Few of the stories in that film build to a big climax; instead they center on low-key character observations and odd jokes, demonstrating an enjoyment of storytelling for its own sake. Love in a Puff (2010), one of his biggest hits to date, took inspiration from Hong Kong's then-recent ban on smoking in office buildings; its two lovers first meet in a "hot pot pack," referring to those groups of smokers who bond during cigarettes breaks outside their workplaces.
In Vulgaria, Pang mines humor from his own life as a filmmaker. The narrative frame shows veteran producer To Wai-Cheung (Chapman To) addressing an auditorium of film students about the challenges he's faced in his career. In his shaggy-dog story, dramatized in flashbacks, he's struggling to overcome a series of bombs, which have left him months behind in his alimony payments. When a friend offers to introduce him to Brother Tyrannosaurus (Ronald Cheng), a gangster from the Chinese mainland who's interested in financing movies, To jumps at the chance, unconcerned that the man is a crazy sexual deviant. Their dinner meeting provides the film's first big comic set piece, when Tyrannosaurus demands that To prove his trustworthiness by eating a number of disgusting mainland "delicacies" that range from deep-fried field mice to cow labia. To seal the deal, he invites the hapless producer to have sex with his "best girl," which turns out to be a mule. Just before the story becomes too revolting, the film appears to break down and To appears before a white screen to claim he's forgotten what happened.
His financing secured, To explains, he began recruiting his cast and crew. His de facto assistant in this process is a plucky aspiring actress (Dada Chan) whose claim to fame is that she's blown nearly every man in the Hong Kong film industry. They meet at a party, and the actress—whom everyone calls "Popping Candy"—proves herself a reliable friend by babysitting To's daughter (of whom he has custody for a few days) when he's called away on business. When To discovers that the woman is homeless, he offers her a place to stay, and she returns the favor by sharing with him her vast store of inside knowledge about the industry. Popping Candy turns out to be the closest thing to a moral center in the movie; she's so committed to show business that she'll happily compromise herself for the sake of a creative endeavor.
In a lesser movie Candy would become the butt of sexist jokes, but in Vulgaria the women are as knowingly crass as any of the men. (Candy has a hilarious monologue about her dream project: a video game for the Wii in which players give hand jobs.) Speaking to the Singapore-baseed Web site InSing.com, Pang explained the reasoning behind his inclusive vibe: "Vulgarities are part of our daily lives. In Cantonese . . . vulgarities are part of the way we express ourselves, our feelings . . . Sometimes in incorporating vulgarities in our conversation with friends, it forms the closeness between us."
The verbal humor also has a political dimension, since the official language of the People's Republic of China is Mandarin. Interviewed by Time Out Hong Kong, Pang noted that he rushed the film into production when he learned that the PRC planned to purge regional dialects from public media. '[You'd never guess] that a film with non-stop swearing and a mule-fucking plotline would originate from the fight for freedom of a dialect's [public] usage," he joked, adding that, because mainland Chinese censors would undoubtedly consider the film too obscene for release, there's been no attempt to dub it into Mandarin. Vulgaria takes delight in its Cantonese language; many of the gags are based on puns, and To has a talent for fast-talking his way out of embarrassing situations. (In addition, all the mainland Chinese characters are corrupt or crazy.)
Because sex is discussed but never shown, the sexual content in Vulgaria doesn't seem real enough to register as pornographic. As in a lot of dirty jokes, the sex acts described are so preposterous that they seem weirdly innocent, even presexual. You may not find the movie funny, but you probably won't find it offensive because the humor is so good-natured. Pang is interested in the dirty joke only insofar as it brings people together, forcing us to acknowledge and shake off our embarrassment over sex and our bodies. Vulgaria may be shameless, but only on the principle that we could all do with a little less shame.