Viva Erotica (1996)

Written & directed by: Derek Yee & Law Chi Leung
Producer: Raymond Chow
Starring: Leslie Cheung, Shu Qi, Karen Mok, Law Kar Ying & Elvis Tsui

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Awards at the Hong Kong Film Awards 1997:
Best Supporting Actress (Shu Qi)
Best New Performer (Shu Qi)

Nominations at the Hong Kong Film Awards 1997:
Best Picture
Best Director (Derek Yee & Law Chi Leung)
Best Actor (Leslie Cheung)
Best Supporting Actor (Elvis Tsui)
Best Original Film Score (Clarence Hui, Chiu Jun Fun & Lau Cho Tak)
Best Original Film Song Sik ching nam nui (Sex Man Woman)
Music: Choi Dak Choi
Lam Jik
Performed by:
Karen Mok & Jordan Chan

In The Lunatics Derek Yee commented on the state of our society and now together with Law Chi Leung, Hong Kong cinema is next. On Derek Yee's Full Throttle, Law Chi Leung was assistant director and has now been promoted to co-director. The result is probably the best Cat III film, with sex scenes, Hong Kong cinema has ever produced.

Sing (Leslie Cheung from A Better Tomorrow) is a writer/director whose last few movies haven't done any good business at the box office. He starts looking for other career paths to take but his producer friend Cheung (Law Kar-Ying from 2002) approaches him about directing a commercial softcore Cat III rated movie. Sing is more of an artist and see no opportunity to display that in this project. Times are still tough though and Sing accepts to make the movie...

The idea for a behind the scenes look at Hong Kong movies was born from the mind of director Bosco Lam who did the oddly entertaining A Chinese Torture Chamber Story. The script was then put together by Derek Yee and Law Chi Leung and the result is an engaging and accessible look at the sleazier side of Hong Kong movie making. The film is a satire and pokes fun at faulty aspects of that but the question then arises: will the viewers who are not very familiar with Hong Kong movies even find this movie funny? The answer is definitely yes but you will enjoy it slightly more if you've seen some of the more 'famous' Cat III movies out of Hong Kong. It's probably true to life that not all Hong Kong directors can fully make a living doing movies. Unless they're high profiled, they have to look for new projects to take and an even more sad truth is the fact the good movies doesn't always excite the audiences in Hong Kong. This is especially highlighted in Lau Ching Wan's (in a cameo) scene where he plays Derek Yee himself, a director with something to say but with no audience. This isn't an actual portrayal of the film's co-director since his past movies have been quite successful. I guess he needed an example and his point is made very clear.

Leslie Cheung's character is a director with more artistic vision but the market doesn't allow for that so he has to go mainstream. By showing this you could say that the cinema audiences themselves get a little slap in the face by the filmmakers but what Derek Yee and Law Chi Leung does is to show that fact is a way of life, not anyone fault. Hopefully after the huge success of Infernal Affairs, the Hong Kong movie scene will feature movies with depth and good box office figures to go along with it. What's also shown in Viva Erotica is that making money is the only goal for the investors and producers, not that the quality of the film is high. However, these real movies we see are sometimes incredibly bad but done with an unexplainable only in Hong Kong-energy that somehow makes the films watchable at least.

These true life facts about the movie making climate in Hong Kong is presented in quite a smart and witty way in Viva Erotica. Most of the humour comes from the different people- and movie references throughout and the absurd (meaning basic) conditions that the movie within the movie is shot under. You can choose to make these jokes and points in a subtle way but Derek Yee and Law Chi Leung spells it all out in the clearest of ways. It doesn't become at all less funny and most importantly it does give a little insight into movie making in Hong Kong.

The structure eventually becomes one that focuses on both comedy and drama, the latter mostly seen in the scenes where Sing gradually starts to neglect his loved ones to focus more on the film. The crew in the movie also gels more as the movie goes along which opens the opportunity for enough depth to make the characters fleshed out enough. I especially enjoyed seeing Elvis Tsui as the male Cat III actor (in real life and in the movie) and as the sweet family man. It's a nice moment that also is quite absurd when you consider the kind of scenes he does to support his family.

Veteran director of photography Jingle Ma handles the look of the film which is hazy and almost dream like. It reminds a bit of what he did on God Of Cookery (minus the strong yellow colour). If you want to start interpret what the dreamy look means, one could argue that it reflects the characters and their dreams in life. Jingle Ma also contributes a great deal of visual style in a few sequences starting with a character moment between Leslie Cheung and Shu Qi. Here everything around the two is completely dark since it's only about them in that moment. There's also a nicely executed and moody dream sequence, worthy of mention, where Leslie fantasize about Shu Qi's character.

Luckily enough Hong Kong cinema and it's actors can distance themselves from their work and poke fun at it. Otherwise I don't think that many familiar faces would've turned up for Derek Yee and Law Chi Leung's film. As our leading man we see the never aging Leslie Cheung as director Sing. He's very quiet and low-key and doubts that he ever will be able to do what he wants to do as a director. This movie may be his last chance. I've always liked Leslie's acting and rarely have a complaint against him in a movie. The movie may be crap but he remains watchable (Who's The Woman, Who's The Man is one example), something that very much applies to this very GOOD movie.

Shu Qi (from The Transporter) is a good actress which I'm sure not many male fans have yet discovered, especially if they've only seen stuff like Sex & Zen II. I've done the opposite and watched her award winning performances first, which include this movie and Portland Street Blues. The fans do get the best of both worlds in Viva Erotica though. Shu is seen as a very self centered and awful Cat III movie actress that only has her body to rely on. That means that we get nudity on many occasions but here it's definitely a valid part of the movie. She later becomes sweeter and both sides are performed spot on by Shu. She's so easy to fall in love with and when she displays these kind of acting skills, her beauty is so much more enhanced. Among the fair amount of cameos in the movie there's the mentioned Lau Ching Wan, Vincent Kok and Anthony Wong who plays Wong Jing.

In the end Viva Erotica has a simple message that could've been in done against many different backdrops but Derek Yee and Law Chi Leung choose their own Hong Kong cinema for it. It doesn't quite reach the heights of The Lunatics and People's Hero but it is still a funny, sweet and witty portrayal of the Hong Kong cinema we love.

The DVD:

Universe presents the movie in it's original 1.85.1 aspect ratio. Despite the cinematography being intentionally soft, the image feels a bit too soft anyway. Luckily print damage is kept to a minimum and colours are nicely presented.

The Cantonese Dolby Digital 5.1 track only uses the front stage and if there was surround effects, there weren't many. The track is centered for dialogue and only for music it opens up. A Mandarin 5.1 dub is also included.

The English subtitles are placed on the image and feature only a few noticeable errors. Otherwise it's another quality subtitle job by Universe. Traditional and simplified Chinese subtitles are also included.

Extras include very basic Star's Files for actors Leslie Cheung and Shu Qi plus trailers for Viva Erotica, Gorgeous, Hot War and The King Of Debt Collecting Agent.

reviewed by Kenneth Brorsson

Thanks to Yellow Hammer for providing composer and lyrics info for the Best Song nominee.