For those familiar with Hong Kong cinema, the term “Cat III” conjures up images of sex for the sake of gratuitous sex. Hong Kong films that fall into the Cat III rating belong in the “erotica” department, which is separated into two distinctive subgenres: screwball sex farce comedy and dark violent thriller. The screwball sex farce comedy is self-explanatory, with some of the more popular being the “Chinese Torture Chamber” and “Erotic Ghost Story” series; the sex in these movies are more for laughs rather than anything approaching passion. The dark violent thrillers are harder to explain, as they usually employ violent themes in conjunction with perverse sex (i.e. rape films or Women’s Revenge pictures); the “Daughter of Darkness” franchise is one of the more popular ones.
For better or worst, the most popular fare coming out of Hong Kong in the ’90s were the hyper violent gun-fu films of John Woo and Chow Yun Fat and Cat III sex films. The latter is where Tung-Shing Yee’s “Viva Erotica” squarely aims its gun barrel. The film is about an out-of-work director (Leslie Cheung) who gets a chance to turn his script into a movie, only to have the producer turn his arthouse idea into softcore porn, ala a Cat III sex film.
If you’ve seen enough Independent films you’ll know that one of the more popular genre for an Independent filmmaker is the Movie About a Movie Being Made movie (or MAMBM). Our lead is always the director, whose “vision” is being screwed with by all the usual suspects: there’s the illegitimate and wholly uncreative producer only worried about the bottom line; the insecure and problematic star who the director becomes attracted to and vice versa; and a combative film crew that challenges our hero at first, but then grows to respect him. Beyond those problems at work, our hero will also be suffering from lack of confidence at home and will be daydreaming about his many perceived shortcomings, which are invariably nightmarish versions of the real world.
Luckily for “Viva Erotica”, the Hong Kong film industry setting is one I’m not used to, otherwise I would have gotten too many feelings of d’jÃ vu to enjoy the movie. I’ve always wondered how the Cat III movies are made, and what the motivations behind them are, as well as what the people making them — in front of and behind the camera — are thinking as they’re shooting what they must know is utter crap. “Viva Erotica” takes us deep into the world of Cat III filmmaking and proves, quite unexpectedly, that these people are just like you and me, and despite the fact that they’re making pure cheese, they still want to do their best work because they’re doing what they love — which is making movies.
“Viva Erotica” is probably a little bit more manipulative than I would have liked, and its dramatic shifts in personality by various characters are sometimes too sudden. Lead Qi Shu (“So Close”) embodies this problem. For the film’s first half, we see Qi Shu’s Mango, the mistress of a Triad boss who is producing the film (i.e. paying for it), act like a spoiled little brat unwilling to do the littlest thing to help out the production. Suddenly she’s this wise, almost perfect bestfriend, willing to do just about anything to help out her fellow filmmakers. It’s a terrific performance by Qi Shu, but the screenplay is at fault here for giving her such a drastic shift in personality without enough hints as to the upcoming change. (Also, for those of you interested, the lovely Ms. Shu is naked very often and for long periods of time in the movie.)
Although Leslie Cheung (“A Better Tomorrow”) is our hero, and his character is at the center of the whole MAMBM, I had seen his character in so many other MAMBM movies that this new incarnation is nothing new. Karen Mok (Qi Shu’s co-star in the recent “So Close”) is good as Cheung’s understanding girlfriend, who convinces him to make the porn movie when he’s hesitant to accept the job. Elvis Tsui (“A Man Called Hero”) is also good as Wah, the soft-spoken leading man in the movie within the movie; Tsui’s character in the movie is playing an impotent rapist/kidnapper, even though the character is actually very king-hearted in real life.
There are a lot of other good supporting characters in “Viva Erotica”. Too much, in fact, to list them all. The screenplay pays very close attention to them and gives them very individual personalities. Of note is Kar-Ying Law as Cheung’s co-producing partner, a man who always has good intentions even when it doesn’t appear so at first glance. And Ching Wan Lau (“Running Out of Time”) shows up in a terrific cameo as a movie director who commits suicide by leaping off a pier after his movie fails at the box office.
For much of its running length, “Viva Erotica” is an honest look at the state of Hong Kong cinema in 1996. Hong Kong filmmakers like Wong Kar-Wai (“Ashes of Time”) and Wong Jing (“High Risk”), who were both revolutionizing that British colony’s film industry at the time (Kar-wai for the good, and Jing for the worst, natch), are given their due in the movie. The film also smirks at what it believes is the sad state of Hong Kong filmgoers that fall over themselves to praise a cheapo sex farce like “Chinese Torture Chamber” but is unable to appreciate a thought-provoking movie.
It’s a sure bet that Ching Wan Lau’s character is the movie representation of director Tung-Shing Yee, who was probably feeling the squeeze of the Cat III explosion in mid ’90s Hong Kong when he made this movie. Like most MAMBM, the film is an extension of the writer/director’s fears, as well as his release. Some people go to therapists to get rid of their insecurities, but filmmakers make movies about them.
Tung-Shing Yee (director) / Bosco Lam, Chi-Leung Law, Tung-Shing Yee (screenplay)
CAST: Leslie Cheung …. Sing
Paul Chun …. Boss Wong
Ching Wan Lau …. Derek Yee
Kar-Ying Law …. Chung