In his director’s statement for Vulgaria, Pang Ho-cheung explains that in China the word vulgar refers not only to unrefined or uncouth behavior, but to a dialect so localized as to be nearly unintelligible to outsiders. Pang goes on to explain that while his new film is meant to be “vulgar and offensive in every way,” the foul language is also included to reflect the reality of bustling Chinese street life that’s often repressed by the country’s film censors. Pang, for example, finds it absurd that a violent triad member might speak and behave as a polite college gentleman.
Pang’s statement, which provides a charming entry point into both his culture as well as his intentions with the film, also pretty much tells you everything you need to know about why Vulgaria doesn’t work. The above passage illustrates a divide in intention: Pang wants to offend his viewers, but for a greater good (in this case to present a more truthful vision of his home than is routinely offered in films), which moots the shocking spontaneity that a good dirty movie needs. A raunchy movie, to be truly funny, much less shocking, needs to pack a jolt of having emerged unexpectedly straight from the filmmaker’s id, and Pang, with his tenderness and eagerness to please, simply doesn’t have the sensibility for that.
Vulgaria is a lively mess. After an opening introduction, reminiscent of William Castle’s films, that grants us an opportunity to leave should we risk sullying ourselves, Pang settles into telling what’s basically a mild story of a struggling producer (Chapman To) looking to make a softcore porn in order to hopefully earn enough money to pay the alimony owed to his ex-wife, who’s become stingy with granting him visitations with their daughter. Over the course of the film, the producer makes a few idiotic choices, figures in one theoretically blasphemous (and off-screen) set piece, and eventually ends up somewhat okay, if amusingly smug.
Pang is a very talented director whose woozy, colorful aesthetic resembles the early, looser work of Wong Kar-wai. Like Wong, Pang is a swooning, wonderfully shameless romantic, and he can’t help but humanize Vulgaria‘s characters, which is a kiss of death for what’s meant to be a farce of escalating obscenity. The central gag, which Pang refers to no less than 10 times, is essentially a retread of the climactic bit in the toothless Clerks II. And the other gags, which pass by in a flash, are generally more poignant than funny or, particularly, raunchy.
This film mixes raunch with sentiment in a fashion that’s superficially similar to the bromances that have been plundering American cinemas for a few years now, and its accompanying press notes have inevitably likened the film to the first Hangover, which is logical given the latter’s overwhelming global success. But there’s a difference between Vulgaria and the smug junk perpetrated by directors like Todd Phillips and David Dobkin that’s worth distinguishing: Pang’s film is an uneven comedy that, as a result of its conviction in its characters, isn’t very funny, while films such as The Hangover and The Change-Up are unfunny and inhuman wallows that don’t have any conviction in anything. Vulgaria is vastly superior to what generally constitutes the American bromance, but it still offers the dispiriting spectacle of an artist trying to play a game that’s below him.