With his big budget opus “The Banquet” having emerged as one of the most talked about films of 2006, it’s good to see Mainland Chinese director Feng Xiaogang’s earlier “Cell Phone” finally getting a DVD release with English subtitles. Although perhaps not so well known outside of China, the film was certainly a big hit domestically, triumphing at the box office and winning the Best Motion Picture prize at the prestigious Chinese Hundred Flowers Awards, along with several acting accolades for its cast, which includes the director’s regular collaborator Ge You (also in “The Banquet”).
The plot of “Cell Phone” follows Yan Shouyi (Ge You), a popular television chat show host who is carrying on a series of extramarital affairs. Unfortunately for the cad, he accidentally leaves his cell phone at home one day, and when his mistress calls, his wife answers. This sets in motion a series of increasingly tricky situations that threaten his carefully woven web of lies, sending his life spiraling out of control.
Although “Cell Phone” is a comedy, it is likely to surprise anyone expecting laughs in the life-affirming style of Feng’s previous hit “A World without Thieves”, being instead a dark, deeply cynical satire packed with bitter humour and biting social criticism. Feng leaves no stone unturned in exploring the ways in which new methods of communication have led to new ways of lying, predominantly with regards to men cheating on their wives and girlfriends, and his accurate observations and great eye for unpleasant details result in a film which is all too believable.
The film benefits from Feng’s naturalistic direction, which is decidedly low key, and with a deadpan style more befitting a drama than a comedy. Unlike his other films, there are few set pieces to be found in “Cell Phone”, and very little in the way of slapstick, further grounding the proceedings in reality and allowing the director to walk a very fine line between humour and domestic horror. It’s fair to say that a large part of the film’s humour is reliant upon the Chinese language, though even this is done in an acidic fashion and only serves to underline its baleful heart.
The film certainly hit home in China, where it was the source of great debate, causing confusion as to whether it was actually based on the life of a real chat show host or not, and where its spot on depiction of a widespread social problem apparently resulted in many real life couples breaking up. Obviously, such issues of cheating and infidelity are equally applicable around the world, and sadly viewers from all countries will probably be able to relate to the incompetent duplicity of the film’s protagonist. From this, it’s certainly safe to say that “Cell Phone” is not a date film, with almost every scene imbued with deception and mistrust.
The only real problem with the film, ironically enough, is that Feng is almost too successful in his use of dark humour, and by focusing the action almost exclusively on the reprehensible Yan, he creates a moral vacuum and leaves the viewer no characters to cheer for or even sympathise with. Although it’s easy enough to laugh at Yan, or at least to gloat over his ever-worsening situation, actually caring about what happens to him is another matter, and without any kind of strong emotional core, the film at times feels a little cold and cruel. Accentuating this is the fact that the film’s female characters are not particularly well written or likeable, being either too trusting or forgiving, almost leaving Yan with free reign to conduct his illicit business.
While the film as a whole may be a realistic societal reflection, it does at times make for rather depressing viewing. As a result, “Cell Phone” is a somewhat strange affair, undeniably clever and well made, though with the director possibly being too good at his own game, painting a bleak picture whose dark comedy leaves the viewer unsure of whether they should be laughing or crying.
Xiaogang Feng (director) / Zhenyun Liu (screenplay)
CAST: Bingbing Fan …. Wu Yue
You Ge …. Yan Shou Yi
Zhao Kuie …. Li Yan
Zhang Lu …. Yu Wen Juan
Yang Xin …. Lu Gui Hua/Niu Cai Yun
Fan Xu …. Shen Xue
Guoli Zhang …. Fei Muo