Viva Erotica (1996) is one of a relative few Category III films to have garnered the type of serious reputation usually reserved for international art films. The film is a semi-autobiographical account of director Bosco Lam’s experiences making Category III films that was written and directed by the team of Derek Yee and Lo Chi-leung. Viva Erotica consciously lampoons the industry with thinly veiled references to producer Wong Jing; a cameo by Anthony Wong; and even a reflexive appearance by Yee himself.
The plot of Viva Erotica is a familiar one focused on the conflict between art and commerce, personal integrity and necessity. What makes Viva Erotica something more extraordinary is how precisely the film captures the milieu of its setting. This film isn’t just a “feel good” homage to the cinema, it’s also a kind of anthropological document specific to a particular time and place. The art of Viva Erotica is in the film’s willingness to address its own production methodology and culture while simultaneously functioning as a whimsical but complex character study.
At the center of the film is the character of Director Sing (Leslie Cheung). It is his battle for artistic integrity that is charted and it is his fantasies that explode off the screen in franticly expressionistic sequences of irreverent comedy. Sing is both the emotional core of the drama as well as the tour guide into the taboo world of Category III filmmaking in Hong Kong. Leslie Cheung fills all these roles seamlessly in his nuanced performance as Sing. Cheung, in less than a minute, can go from a subtle realism to a cartoonish mania without either extreme feeling out of character. It’s a unique feat and one of Cheung’s greatest performances.
But one cannot ignore the major role that small details play in making Viva Erotica so successful. It’s in the small things like the one gaffer’s Taxi Driver tee shirt or the scene where Elvis Tsui brings his family to the set of a soft-core film that all of world building occurs. As far fetched as some of the performances are or as kinetic as the cuts may be Viva Erotica consistently reinforces the illusion that these are real people. Reality is as insane as it is mundane and Viva Erotica captures the essence of this truth beautifully.
The recent Kani Blu-Ray release of Viva Erotica will hopefully enable American audiences to discover the humor and joys of this legendary Hong Kong classic. The new restoration is so impeccable that Viva Erotica probably looks better on this disc than it ever did in theaters. If one is looking for an entry point into the sleazy world of Category III films then Viva Erotica is an ideal place to start and the Kani disc is essential.