Director Pang Ho-cheung's Vulgaria (2012) was recently given a new lease of life after a lady who wrote zealously against it in a review was awarded HK$50,000 in prize money. It did not take long before the media found out that the award-winning movie critic was from Beijing, and the controversy originally surrounding the use of vulgar words and imageries in the movie soon zooms into the issue of Hongkongers and mainlanders.
Over the years, Pang has established himself as one of the most interesting directors in the local film industry. His varied filmography is a testament to his amazing talent, and comedy is clearly one of his favorite genres. From his directorial debut You Shoot, I Shoot (2001), to first box office hit Men Suddenly in Black (2003), to the more recent Trivial Matters (2007), Pang has never stopped impressing audiences with his unique and often dark sense of humor.
Paying tribute to the city's indigenous culture has always been a key theme driving Pang's creative impulses. Watching his movies was like hanging out with your close friends who keep on bombarding you with in-jokes. You felt you are obliged to laugh, but sometimes you were not so sure where the punch lines actually were. Worse, you laughed but found that no others did in the cinema - a clear sign that you were not "pure Hong Kong blood".
From Love in the Buff (2012) onwards, Pang seems to have succumbed to the local bad taste of mocking mainland Chinese. Of course, he did it in a skillful manner. Love in the Buff was essentially about a pair of ex-couple from Hong Kong. They went to Beijing separately, dated some of the best men and women that one can possible find there, and decided finally to get back together. Although getting back together is a recurrent theme in the genre of romance, the added element of "Hongkongers in Beijing" gives the movie a slightly discriminatory undertone.
Anyone not Hong Kong-centric would ask after watching Love in the Buff: Is this a story about love, or is it about Hongkongers too good for the mainland Chinese. Maybe a little bit of both. We can never be sure.
Pang's latest, Vulgaria, brings sarcasm towards the mainlanders to a whole new level. In the movie, struggling movie producer To Wai-Cheung (Chapman To) is hardly able to make alimony payments to his ex-wife, and yet his daughter Jacqueline hopes to see him being interviewed by TVB, so she can show her schoolmates her father is a real movie producer. In order to fulfill his daughter's dream, through his best buddy Lui he meets Brother Tyrannosaurus (Ronald Cheng Chung-kei), a Guangxi-based triad head and a movie investor with a peculiar taste. Brother Tyrannosaurus wants a remake of his favorite film, the 1976 Shaw Brothers sex scorcher, Confession of a Concubine, to be renamed as Confessions of Two Concubines, starring the original (and aged) actress Siu Yam-yam.
The movie's climax is a scene in a Guangxi restaurant, where To and Lui who refuse to eat the exotic local cuisine are told by Tyrannosaurus that the investment deal can be sealed only if they have intercourse with a mule. This is as vulgar as you can get in a Hong Kong motion picture.
While others admire Vulgaria, thinking that it is a hilarious satire on the movie industry, Jasmine Jia Xuanning, a 24-year-old Beijing Film Academy and Chinese University of Hong Kong graduate, won the Hong Kong Arts Development Council's first ever Critic's Prize slamming the film. Among other things, she thought that the movie portrays some Hongkongers' anxiety: not able to accept the fact that we rely on investments from the mainland, we regard them culturally inferior so as to achieve psychological balance.
It's true that Vulgaria is as much about making fun of the local movie industry as mocking the mainlanders. You can call that cultural chauvinism, but it also reflects on how the industry is intertwined with influences from the mainland. Art is inherently political, but the fact that it provokes different responses in different people reminds us that it indeed takes all sorts to make a world.
Responding to Jia's critique, Pang wrote on Facebook: "I think the Hong Kong spirit is embodied in freedom of speech you think vulgarity is garbage, I think the suppression of vulgarity leads to the downfall of works of free speech."
Freedom of speech?! Well, Pang might as well declare vulgarity another of Hong Kong's "core values."
The author is former president of the Hong Kong University Students' Union and a current affairs commentator.