“The 601st Phone Call” marks the directorial debut of popular television actor Zhang Guoli, who was featured in a couple of films by Feng Xiaogang, who here lends his support to Guoli’s film as producer. The film also provides Zhou Bichang, the first runner up of the famous Chinese ‘Super Girl’ singing contest with her first proper film role, having previously added her voice to the animation “McDull, The Alumni”. The plot is based upon a recent real life incident in which some 600 celebrities were outraged after their cell phone numbers were leaked to the public, adding the twist that one of the numbers in question actually turned out to be wrong.
In this case, the wrong number results in a poor office girl called Yishu being bombarded with calls for the famous pop singer Tianyou (played by Hong Kong actress Cecilia Cheung, whose voice is dubbed into Mandarin), one of which just happens to be from Xiaowen, a seriously ill young man who is desperate to have his idol sing a song he has written. Letting him believe that she is Tianyou’s assistant, Yishu returns Xiaowen’s call, and the two form a bond through their phone conversations as his condition gradually deteriorates. Meanwhile, the pop princess has troubles of her own, as her ruthless manager and the chairman of her record company milk the situation for all its worth, while trying to force her to sacrifice her artistic integrity by singing lame songs. The fiends!
Of these two narrative strands, it is the latter which turns out to be far more interesting and entertaining, and the film works quite well as a light, though bizarre satire on celebrity, media and the cynicism of record companies. This is taken to wacky extremes through the character of the chairman (who is played by the director himself), who spends the entire film sitting around in dark rooms, wearing sunglasses, drinking brandy, smoking cigars and laughing like a Shaw Brothers’ villain as he plots new and sinister ways to exploit poor Tianyou, even hiring thugs to beat her up and planning her suicide, complete with a perky post-death sales campaign.
Whilst never as biting or clever as Feng Xiaogang’s “Cell Phone”, the film does manage a few laughs as a result of the Tianyou storyline. Although any drama is seriously undermined by the fact that the singer herself is quite obviously demented, being prone to sudden fits of howling tears and inexplicably obsessed with her so called artistic ideals when her repertoire seems to consist wholly of bouncy pop songs. Of course, this in itself makes for a fair bit of amusement, though viewers will most likely find themselves siding with the devious chairman as he attempts to steer the tormented airhead towards a lucrative demise.
Unfortunately, the relationship between Yishu and Xiaowen is nowhere near as engaging, mainly due to the fact that neither of the two is particularly likeable or even believable, with the former losing any viewer sympathy early on through her stubborn refusal to ever turn her phone off, switch it to silent mode, or even change her horribly annoying ring tone. Meanwhile, dying swan Xiaowen spends the running time alternating between attempting to flirt by crooning his inane songs down the phone and coughing up blood. Both characters also have the irritating habit of talking to themselves, usually spouting variations on ‘oh please, why won’t you answer my call?’ Matters are not helped by the fact that director Zhang insists on drowning most of their scenes in maudlin music and angst inspired posing, and whilst this does make for some moments of unintentional humour, it glaringly detracts from any pretensions he may have had towards moving tragedy.
To be fair, there are a few genuinely funny scenes scattered throughout “The 601st Phone Call”, one involving the old owner of the flower shop where Xiaowen and his ghastly band rehearse, and another where an aging actor complains to journalists about his number not being on the leaked list. These, along with the general absurdity of the film as a whole are enough to make for a fair bit of entertainment, though in general it is likely to appeal mainly to fans of the cast or of soap opera style tearjerkers.
Guoli Zhang (director) / Jingzhi Zou (screenplay)
CAST: Cecilia Cheung … Tianyou
Ge Hu … Xiaowen
Ben Niu … Old Man Li
Guoli Zhang … Chairman of the Board
Meng Zhang … He Ling