Being Natural (天然☆生活, Tadashi Nagayama, 2018) [Fantasia 2018]

Being Natural posterModern life is stressful and perhaps does not offer the kinds of material rewards that previous generations took for granted. Moving back to the country to experience a simpler, more sincere kind of life has become a mini trope in contemporary Japanese cinema as the young men and women of Japan become disillusioned with a stagnating economy and, feeling trapped within a conformist society, decide to embark on a life of self sufficiency free of material burdens. What such stories have not yet asked is if the influx of outsiders from the city amounts to a colonisation of so far untouched land as the newcomers bring with them their newfangled desires and attitudes. Tadashi Nagayama’s gentle satire Being Natural (天然☆生活, Tennen Seikatsu) is partly an attack on rampart xenophobia and small scale colonialism but also a mild condemnation of corporatised hippiedom and its tendency to destroy the thing it claims to honour in remaking it to fit a city dweller’s ideal of idyllic country life.

Shy and awkward, Taka (Yota Kawase) is an unemployed middle-aged man who lives with his elderly uncle in the ancestral family home. Taka’s uncle suffers from dementia and, it seems, was always a “difficult” person even in his youth which is perhaps why the rest of the family have abandoned him with only the gentle Taka prepared to stay behind and look after the ageing patriarch. When his uncle dies, Taka’s world threatens to collapse but thankfully his embittered cousin Mitsuaki (Shoichiro Tanigawa) is talked round by his sister and decides to let Taka stay in the family home as a thank you for taking care of everything for so long. Not only that, Mitsuaki also gets Taka a job working at the local fishing pool alongside another old friend, Sho (Tadahiro Tsuru).

Reverting to childhood, the three men generate an easy camaraderie, looking after turtles, having barbecues, and making music together under the moonlight. The idyllic days are not to last, however. The harbingers of doom are a hippyish family from Tokyo who moved into the village with the intention of opening a coffee shop. The Kuriharas – Keigo (Kanji Tsuda), his wife Satomi (Natsuki Mieda), and daughter Itsumi (Kazua Akieda), are into the “natural” way of life and have moved from Tokyo for the benefit of their health. Rather than shop at the supermarket like everyone else, they’re keen to buy from Sho’s grocery store even when he explains to them that all his veg is old and shrivelled rather than freshly plucked from local fields. Still, the family are determined even if it means projecting their vision of “rural life” onto the evident reality.

The Kuriharas are literally intrusive – rudely opening the sliding doors of Taka’s house without permission and waking him up, offering the excuse that they were unable to find the “intercom” on this traditional Japanese house that they claim to admire so much. The original site having fallen through, they’ve set their sights on setting up shop in Taka’s home, exploiting the “traditional” architecture for their warm and welcoming cafe. This is all very well but it does of course mean displacing Taka from his natural habitat. As shy and mild mannered as he is, there’s only so much a man can take and Taka resents being evicted from his family home by a bunch of invading interlopers with commercial concerns.

While Satomi natters on about organic veg, Itsumi skips the English classes her controlling mother makes he go to and guzzles additive loaded instant ramen when she thinks no one’s looking. Wanting to preserve the “natural beauty of glorious Japan”, Keigo goes slightly nuts when he realises Taka’s pet turtles are a non-native breed, exploding with xenophobic fury over the dangerous presence of a disease laden predator whose presence threatens the safety of the true Japanese amphibian. Wondering exactly who or what is the “non native” threat, Taka launches a full scale resistance movement, papering the house in giant graffiti posters reminiscent of the student protest era reminding all that turtles, no matter where they’re from, have a right to life too and must be defended. Yet the corporately minded hippies will stop at nothing to get what they want – manipulating Mitsuaki with a new girlfriend and then turning the town against Taka by means of a heinous, life ruining rumour. 

Forced out and heading to the city, Taka is reminded that he is now the hostile foreign element – that the park is not his “home” but belongs to “everyone”. When his beloved bongos are ruptured, Taka’s rage turns radioactive and sends him off on a quest of vengeance only to recede as his better nature regains control and he commits himself to using his new found powers to improve the lives of those around him in small but important ways. A satirical take on the romanticisation of country life by self-interested city dwellers, Being Natural eventually takes a turn for the macabre that possibly undercuts rather than reinforces some of its central concerns but makes a case for according the proper respect to the natural world as well as the people who live within it rather than attempting to exploit it for oneself whilst wilfully ruining it for others.


Being Natural received its international premiere at Fantasia International Film Festival 2018.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Men on the Dragon (逆流大叔, Sunny Chan, 2018)

Men on the dragon posterLife is tough for the middle-aged man in contemporary Hong Kong, at least according to the directorial debut from screenwriter Sunny Chan Men on the Dragon (逆流大叔). Economic woes, a precarious employment environment, familial strife, and elusive Andy Lau tickets all conspire to make our guys feel powerless in a society that seems primed to crush their spirits. Can dragon boating really help put their fire back in their bellies? Conventional wisdom would say no, but then there is something about physically demanding team sports that is particularly good at inflaming individual desires.

Pegasus Broadband is about to announce another round of mass layoffs which has each of our heroes worried. Participating in a mini protest strike puts them straight in the firing line (even if they were clever enough not to write their real names on the petition forms), but when they’re seemingly lucky enough to escape the axe for now at least they think they can breathe easy. An unexpected call from the boss instructing them to appear at a mysterious location with swimming trunks in hand even has them wondering if they’re being given some kind of bribe to play nice but as it turns out the reverse is true. Pegasus Broadband wants to improve its public image and has decided to do that by entering a team in the upcoming dragon boat races. The race, which they fully expect to win, will be streamed live online to demonstrate the company’s infrastructural superiority. Fearing they’ll be bumped up the redundancy list if they refuse, our guys resign themselves to becoming unlikely dragon boat champions but end up discovering unexpected sides of their potential which prove essential in solving their individual crises.

Suk-yi (Poon Chan Leung), bespectacled and mild-mannered, is the least athletic of the Pegasus Broadband employees but is half grateful for the dragon boating opportunity because it gets him out of the house where his wife and mother constantly bicker while his small daughters can’t stop fighting. Feeling pushed out and unwelcome in his house full of angry women, Suk-yi is desperately looking for some kind of escape or possibility of reasserting his authority which he begins to find while training for the dragon boat races and nursing a small crush on the pretty coach, Dorothy (Jennifer Yu). Meanwhile, Lung (Francis Ng) is unmarried but has found himself in an awkward non-relationship with the woman next-door for whom he cooks and cleans, even taking care of her moody teenage daughter. He dreams of making a real family but lacks both the courage and financial resources to make a move. The youngest of the gang, William (Tony Wu), has the opposite problem in that he’s given up his dream of being a top Ping Pong player to build a future with his girlfriend but begins to realise that he hasn’t given up on his athletic hopes while boss Tai (Kenny Wang) is secretly torn apart by the worry that his wife is having an affair with a sleazy real estate agent.

All four guys have found themselves swept along by the current of modern Hong Kong, coasting without aim or purpose but filled with middle-aged anxiety as they wonder where the river is taking them and if it’s already too late to change the destination. Suk-yi’s dilemma is perhaps the most cliched of the three as he contemplates swapping his disharmonious household for the unattainable charms of an idealised younger woman while Lung chases easy familial bliss, Tai tries to repair a relationship corrupted by modern social pressures, and William wonders if it’s worth giving up a part of yourself to make a relationship work knowing that kernel of resentment will only grow with time. Men on the Dragon is, in this sense, a very “male” story in which four put upon men feel themselves emasculated by oppressive social forces yet learn to rediscover their “manhood” through the intensely physical act of dragon boating.

They are however guided along by an austere young woman who bangs the drum to which they must all march. This is not Dorothy’s story and she gets short shrift among all the guys but there’s something interesting in the fact that she had to hire a “male foreigner” to pretend to be the “real” coach because no one would hire a female dragon boater despite her impressive list of qualifications and credentials. Gently rebuffing Suk-yi’s interest, she nevertheless guides him towards a confrontation he’d long been avoiding in reasserting himself in his own household, restoring his standing in his wife’s eyes and brokering piece with his feisty mother who can’t seem to get on with her Mainland daughter-in-law. It’s the rhythm of life that’s important, Dorothy reminds the guys – you don’t get anywhere unless you’re all pulling together. That might sound like we’re back where we started, being swept along in a mass current without control or direction but it’s individual will which drives the communal enterprise and there can be no progress without agency. Not all dreams work out, but you won’t know unless you try and at least if you crash and burn there are plenty of guys waiting to pull you out of the water.


Men on the Dragon made its world premiere at the New York Asian Film Festival 2018.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

After My Death (죄 많은 소녀, Kim Ui-seok, 2017)

After my death posterKorea has one of the highest suicide rates in the world as the pressure cooker society conspires to railroad those who find themselves in someway excluded from its rigourously conformist demands toward inescapable despair. With the phenomenon so common, has it become true that society itself has become inured to its effects, seeking not to ease suffering but to control damage? For the clutch of schoolgirls at the centre of Kim Ui-seok’s After My Death (죄 많은 소녀, Choe Manheun Sonyeo), suicide has taken on its own allure as an escape from the demands they feel themselves unable to meet but there are few looking to guide them away from the abyss rather than to negate their own responsibility for failing to do so.

A high school student, Kyung-min, is missing. Her backpack and shoes have been found near a local bridge and it is feared that she may have committed suicide though there is no note or additional evidence to suggest that she has taken her own life nor have they found a body. With speculation rife, all eyes are on another student, Young-hee (Jeon Yeo-Bin), apparently one of the last people to have seen Kyung-min alive. Though Young-hee and Kyung-min had been good friends in the past, they were no longer close and had apparently run into each other by chance along with another friend of Young-hee’s, Han-sol. Han-sol’s testimony differs from Young-hee’s in that she says Kyung-min seemed “gloomy” and that the evening had taken an intense turn after she suddenly declared her love for Young-hee only for Young-hee to tell her to prove her devotion by dying.

Things get worse for Young-hee when the police track Kyung-min’s movements via CCTV and find footage from a nearby tunnel which appears to show a gentle kiss between the two girls. Hounded, Young-hee finds herself a target of persistent harassment by her school mates who insist that she is in someway cursed and “infects” people with “bad thoughts” while Kyung-min’s mother (Seo Young-hwa) has also started semi-stalking her hoping to find out “the truth” about what happened to Kyung-min.

The other girls, testifying to Kyung-min’s character, reinforce the view that she was “gloomy”, a loner who didn’t fit in. She didn’t like K-pop, didn’t socialise much, and was into depressing things. When suspicions rise regarding her possible suicide, the school is quick to leap to conclusions – that like many in South Korea she had become over anxious about college applications, but as her grades were good and Kyung-min was a diligent student this explanation seems unlikely which works out well for the school. Kyung-min’s teacher quickly goes into damage limitation mode, confirming that she had been withdrawn, struggled to communicate with her classmates, and was probably very lonely though he lays most of the blame on melancholy ‘90s shoegaze which he assumes must have somehow tipped her over the edge. What all of this means is that it’s not his fault, and he feels he has justification for “failing” in his duties of pastoral care towards a student whom by his own admission he suspected of being in distress.

During Young-hee’s questioning, she repeatedly tells the police officer in charge that she too is suicidal and that she told Kyung-min about her own plan to jump off a bridge because she thought it might help. Young-hee is quite clearly depressed even before all of these very difficult events but finds no one willing to listen to her distress, only making herself a magnet for further hostility from just about everyone with even her teacher berating her for stealing Kyung-min’s thunder in insisting that she stole her idea of jumping off the bridge rather than trying to commit suicide through an overdose of sleeping pills which, Young-hee claims, was her intention before she discouraged her lest she end up still alive but brain damaged.

The lingering doubt is to which “me” is the owner of “death” in the title, or to whom the Korean title of “unrighteous girl” might apply. The motives for Kyung-min’s (presumed) death may be beside the point as a policeman investigating the case suggests – perhaps she didn’t want “understanding” so much as oblivion. What we’re left with is a rather poignant love triangle and the suggestion that Young-hee’s intense depression is a result of repressed same sex attraction which opens another series of questions about which acts are “unrighteous” – suicide or love, with the unfortunate implication that perhaps one cannot but lead to the other. In any case, the problem is that all these kids want to die and the adults no longer want to stop them, only to avoid any potential responsibility for what the children in their care may or may not try to do. Melancholy and drenched in despair, After My Death has nothing but sympathy for its lonely teens but finds no possible escape from the crushing vice of a blame fuelled conformist society.


After My Death was screened as part of the New York Asian Film Festival 2018.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Interview with director Kim Ui-seok from the 2017 Busan International Film Festival (English subtitles)

The Bold, the Corrupt, and the Beautiful (血觀音, Yang Ya-che, 2017)

The Bold the corrupt and the beautiful posterAre you playing the game or is the game playing you? The Bold, the Corrupt, and the Beautiful (血觀音, Xuè Guānyīn) is, as its name suggests, somewhere between trashy soap opera and spaghetti western as its entirely amoral matriarch prepares to sacrifice everything in order to get ahead. The family becomes a metaphor for the state – corrupt, prejudicial, hypocritical, and often heartless in its ruthlessness but like a family a state perhaps reaps what it sows and the lessons Madame Tang has taught her daughters may come back to haunt her.

In the Taiwan of the 1980s – the dying days of the old regime but firmly within the pre-democratic past, Madame Tang (Kara Hui) is the widow of a general and, on the surface of things, an antiques dealer. Her real worth however lies in making herself the society face of genial corruption as the conveyor of the ancient treasures that often stand in for monetary bribes in the complex system of reciprocal politics. Designed to manoeuvre herself and her family into a position of power and perhaps safety, Madame Tang’s machinations amount to a mess of intrigue, manipulating the social interactions of her “friends” in order to convince them to destroy each other and clear a path for her ascendance. Part of her grand plan has involved extensive use of her daughter, Ning Ning (Wu Ke-xi) – now approaching middle-age and thoroughly sick of being her mother’s prize pony, while Chen-Chen (Vicky Chen), still a teenager, has usurped her place as the latest cute little thing to be trotted out and fussed over.

Everything starts to go wrong when a powerful neighbouring family, the Lins, is murdered in a suspicious looking home invasion leaving the daughter, Pien-Pien (Wen Chen-ling), who the closest thing Chen-Chen had to a real human friend, in a coma. Pien-Pien had been carrying on with Marco (Wu Shuwei) the stable boy which obviously had not gone down well with her parents though she had backed out of a plan to elope with him. The police’s theory is that Marco had come back to the family home and taken his revenge, but there is an awful lot more going here than just a jealous proletarian boyfriend hitting back at the bourgeoisie.

Piling layer upon layer Yang’s script is dense and sometimes impenetrable to those not well versed in Taiwanese history and culture. Madame Tang seems to have something of an interesting hidden backstory, swapping easily between standard Taiwanese Mandarin, Cantonese, and Japanese which she, and Chen-Chen, use to get close to Mrs. Lin whose grasp of Taiwanese remains poor despite having lived on the island for many years and being heavily involved in politics. The house the family inhabits is also distinctly Japanese in layout, a colonial era home now inhabited by post-war migrants from other areas of China. The Lins look down on their stable boy not only because of the obvious class difference, or because of their daughter’s relative youth and tarnished reputation, but because he is from a persecuted minority of native peoples.

Marco does however become a kind of key. Chen-Chen, curious and privy to more knowledge than a child of her age ought to have thanks to her mother’s scheming, has developed a fondness for the strapping stable boy and mildly resents being made fun of by the oddly amused Pien-Pien. The rot sets in as Chen-Chen is sent to fetch Ning-Ning only to find her engaging in some kind of orgy in a forest, over which Chen-Chen lingers a little to long only to catch Ning-Ning’s eye and find herself suddenly caught out while her “sister” apparently finds extra spice in her discomfort. Ning-Ning, after years of emotional abuse at the hands of her mother, has begun to rebel by embarrassing her, losing herself in drink, drugs, and promiscuous sex with unsuitable men while Madame Tang still harps on about possible dynastic marriages if now to a distinctly third class tier of potential husbands.

Yang adds a post-modern dimension to the story by framing it as a cautionary tale recounted by a pair of traditional musicians in the manner of Gezi Opera which begins closer to the now before flashing back to show us how we got here. Even if the political metaphors do not hit home without some kind of primer in Taiwanese history, the familial allegory is obvious enough – corruption breeds corruption and the hollow family will eventually swallow its young. The closing coda, presented via intertitles, reminds us that the scariest prospect is not imminent punishment, but a loveless future. The Tangs’ tragedy is not that there was no love between them, but that in their cynicism and insecurity they destroy themselves through a selfish need for control and possession. Madame Tang’s lessons have indeed been learned too well, and in this she damns herself as well as her daughters, condemning all to a loveless future fuelled by greed and fear from which it is impossible to escape.


The Bold, the Corrupt, and the Beautiful was screened as part of the New York Asian Film Festival 2018.

Original trailer (traditional Chinese subtitles only)

Interview with director Yang Ya-che from the 2017 Busan Film Festival (English subtitles)

What a Man Wants (바람 바람 바람, Lee Byeong-heon, 2018)

What a man Wants posterMarriage, eh? Bit of a rollercoaster. Lee Byeong-heon’s sex farce What a Man Wants (바람 바람 바람, Baram Baram Baram) takes two ordinary couples and exposes the various hypocrisies which underpin their existences as they battle boredom and excitement in turn before finally figuring out exactly which relationship(s) they would ideally like to be in full time. The sexual politics are distinctly old fashioned, as is the male fantasy wish fulfilment at the film’s centre, but Lee chooses wryness over cynicism in asking if a little infidelity here and there might actually strengthen an otherwise shaky connection.

Seok-guen (Lee Sung-min) used to design rollercoasters all over the world, but now he drives a taxi on Jeju and gets his kicks “picking up” fares. That’s not to say he doesn’t love his wife, the patient Dam-deok (Jang Young-Nam), but he enjoys the thrill of the chase and favours instant gratification over the patient pleasures of married life. Seok-guen is often aided and abetted in his assignations by his straight laced brother-in-law, Bong-soo (Shin Ha-kyun), who is married to Seuk-guen’s forthright sister, Mi-young (Song Ji-hyo). Bong-soo doesn’t really approve of Seok-guen’s carrying on and doesn’t see the appeal of extra-marital affairs, but realises he has little choice other than to help Seok-guen out or risk his family life imploding. The couples live next-door to one another and are extremely close.

The trouble starts when Seok-guen tries to pick up the alluring Jenny (Lee El) at a pool bar. Bong-soo, not normally smitten, is seemingly hit by a lightening bolt and finds himself suddenly fantasising about another woman. Seok-guen had long been urging Bong-soo to have an affair (which is odd seeing as Bong-soo is married to his little sister), but he probably hadn’t envisaged him stealing Jenny out from under him. Flattered when Jenny starts paying him attention, Bong-soo succumbs only to make a rookie mistake of going home with her panties in his jacket pocket. Bong-soo takes revenge for years of being an alibi and blames the whole thing on Seok-guen who is mock thrown out by Dam-deok though she only really means to teach him a lesson rather than get rid of him for good.

The problem with Jenny is she’s not really real. She’s an embodiment of a male fantasy that might as well have been conjured up by the otherwise dull Bong-soo. With her sexy outfits, self consciously cute way of speaking, and frankly unbelievable interest in a boring failed restaurateur you really have to wonder if she’s not some kind of spy or a master criminal lining up a mark (except that neither Seok-guen or Bong-soo have any money). Sadly, no. She’s just the archetypal sexpot ripped straight from a ‘70s farce with little more to her character than sauciness with a side order of harlotry, despite the valiant efforts of actress Lee El who attempts to imbue her later emotional scenes with depth and sincerity to make up for her underwritten role. Jenny repeatedly claims to know what men “want” and then gives it to them, like some sort of temptress from a folktale, never allowed to express what it is she might “want” but only ever hanging around to be “won” by one of the two guys.

Bong-soo and Seok-guen undergo a role reversal when an unexpected tragedy forces Seok-gun to reassess his philandering ways while Bong-soo becomes a practiced adulterer. The marriage of Mi-young and Bong-soo is already on shaky ground – their sex life is all but dead and they’ve been having trouble conceiving. Mi-young is addicted to social media while Bong-soo spends his spare time building LEGO models, and in addition to being marital partners they also co-own an “Italian” restaurant which Bong-soo has long wanted to turn into a Chinese one (he trained as a Chinese chef) but Mi-young continually ignores his dream despite the fact that the restaurant is permanently empty and about to go bankrupt. Partly mid-life crisis, Bong-soo’s affair is motivated by a need to reassert his “manhood” while Jenny flatters him, strokes his ego, and does all the “wifely” things the “bossy” Mi-young refuses to do.

Yet just as Seok-guen said they would, Bong-soo’s fortunes improve thanks his to philandering – he becomes a better chef, the business takes off, and Mi-young (paradoxically) seems to develop more faith him as well as additional respect for his increasing “manliness”. Both men, through their interactions with the almost non-existent Jenny, are then forced to consider what, or who, it is they really want though Lee’s message seems to be that there are “secrets” in every marriage and perhaps it’s better not to ask too many questions if you want to maintain a happy married life. Cynical, though gleefully so, What a Man Wants is a salty affair but one which ultimately places its faith in “love” to find its way home despite the messiness of the journey.


What a Man Wants was screened as part of the New York Asian Film Festival 2018.

International trailer (English subtitles)

Neomanila (Mikhail Red, 2017)

Neomanila posterWhat kind of future can there be on the streets of Duterte’s Philippines? For one orphaned son of Manila’s slums, the only answer he can see is none at all. “I’m going to die no matter what I do”, he tells a surrogate maternal figure whose conflicted maternity will eventually bring about ruin for them both. Mikhail Red’s Neomanila is the latest in a string of films to examine the social costs of Duterte’s “Extra Judicial Killings” of “Drug Dealers” often conducted by vigilante bounty hunters working with the tacit complicity of legitimate law enforcement. Inheriting a world of corruption where life is cheap and sensitivity breeds despair, boys like Toto (Timothy Castillo) find themselves caught in the crossfire of an increasingly heartless regime.

When we first meet Toto, he’s trying to visit his older brother, Kiko (Ross Pesigan), who has been rounded up by the police in a drug dealer trawl. Kiko is small fry – a petty gangster only peripherally connected with the drug trade, but the police are holding him in the hope of tracking down another suspect, Ringgo (Edwin Nombre). The problem is, unbeknownst to Kiko or to Toto, Ringgo is already dead – he was the dealer we just saw gunned down in the street by a hired assassin. Trying to figure out how to get the bail money together for his brother, Toto pays a visit to a local gang boss and then hangs out with his girlfriend Gina (Angeline Andoy) in between running petty errands for the gang. One particular job brings him into the orbit of Irma (Eula Valdez) – a woman running a “pest control” business who used to know his mother before she was killed in a fire in the slums some years ago. Irma offers him a job in her store, but Toto quickly becomes aware that Irma runs a lucrative sideline as a hitwoman for hire. Together with her partner (both romantic and crime) Raul (Rocky Salumbides), Irma works for mysterious police handler Sarge who gives the pair frequent assignments to take care of “suspects” and bring home the drugs as well as other kinds of “valuable” “evidence” including phones and weaponry.

Orphaned at a young age, Toto is left entirely alone on the streets of Manila. He’s not a really part of the gang and cannot rely them for familial support and with his brother out of the picture he has no one to stand for him. The quasi-maternal connection he builds with Irma is he closest thing to family he has experienced in quite some time. Irma too, apparently mother to an absent son, quickly takes on the role of Toto’s protector – she gives him her own son’s clothes, feeds him, and later takes him out on trips to the karaoke bar or shopping to buy trainers all while “training” him to become a part of her outfit even whilst believing that Toto is somehow “better” and not “like the other” kids from the slums who get mixed up in drugs and crime through having no other options to survive. Wanting to “contribute” as part of the family, Toto goes along with Irma’s morally dubious education but he is also still a child with a deeply felt sense of humanity and justice and is therefore increasingly conflicted about the duo’s heartlessness and refusal to question their various assignments.

Trapped by the world he has inherited, Toto has few options other than to conform to the harshness of its rules or risk becoming a victim of them. The vision Red paints of modern Manila is one lit by gloomy neon half-light in which gangsters go to mass and priests preach about the seventh commandment while the state itself sanctions bloody murder in the streets conducted by those with vested interests in perpetuating a world of inescapable poverty in which death has become an industry. Drenched in despair and unbelievably bleak, Neomanila is a story of a city eating itself alive in which there is no future, no possibility of salvation, and innocence is just another weakness to be burned on an altar to (im)moral austerities so that the world might feel “safer” to those who live in fear of its self-created evils.


Neomanila was screened as part of the New York Asian Film Festival 2018.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

The Big Call (巨额来电, Oxide Pang, 2017)

The Big Call posterOnce upon a time people sneered at telephone scams, unable to believe anyone would fall for something so obviously dubious, yet technological innovation has turned them into an underground industry as our data is bought and sold across a spectrum of nefarious forces whose use for it runs from relentless spamming to the intention to defraud. Oxide Pang’s The Big Call (巨额来电, Jùé Láidiàn) pits an earnest Mainland cop against an entrepreneurial kingpin running a multinational operation which he half-brands as a Robin Hood exercise intended to rob the super rich of their excess wealth, but then he never quite intends to redistribute it, only to put it straight back to work so that it might reproduce.

Our hero, straight as an arrow rookie policeman Ding (Cheney Chen), fails to save his old high school teacher from committing suicide after being defrauded of a vast amount of money through a telephone scam. Fraud isn’t really his division – he’s just a regular street cop, but he’s determined to protect the people in his precinct and seeing as he’s already found numerous similar cases is convinced he has a shot at unmasking the criminal. Ding’s investigation, however, unwittingly throws a spanner into an Anti-Telecommunication Fraud Centre operation. Despite their irritation, the guys in the fraud squad decide to let Ding in on the action whereupon he quickly realises that his old academy girlfriend is in fact undercover in the Thai sweatshop where his prime suspect, Lin Ahai (Joseph Chang), and his partner/girlfriend Liu Lifang (Gwei Lun-mei) run a call centre staffed by trafficked women. Teaming up with Taiwanese gangsters, Ahai and Lifang make use of extremely detailed personal information to create convincing telephone scams so that their marks will never suspect they aren’t who they say they are until it’s too late.

Ahai is perhaps a symptom of modern Chinese inequality. A poor young man who sought to better himself, Ahai is ignored by the business world and revels in getting his own back by making millions defrauding millionaires. Yet it’s not only “evil” millionaires that the pair target but ordinary men and women who don’t have the kind of money they can afford to lose. Ahai’s own sister (Peng Xinchen) left the village and refused to take his ill-gotten gains but later falls victim to a cruel scam herself – she’s just a college student with hardly any money but the scammers use exactly that against her, pretending to be from the education authorities so they can persuade her to part with her tuition money or else threaten her with problems in her enrolment. Meanwhile, he and and Lifang dream of the life that was far out of their reach – a swanky flat on Hong Kong’s fashionable Hennessy Road where they could live together with all the comforts of the elite and raise a family free of economic anxiety.

Some might think telephone fraud is a victimless crime, that the banks will cover the loss for their investors and so the only casualty is capitalism. This is however not true. Not only will many people be deprived of their life savings – money they needed in the short term for medical bills, tuition, mortgages etc, but will suffer intense humiliation at having been so cruelly caught out. The scammers attention to detail is intense. Having acquired vast amounts of confidential information, they have enough to convince most rational people that they are who they say they are but aren’t afraid to take things to the next level if they need to. Unable to get over the shame of having been taken in, suicide is a very real possibility for those who feel they’ve lost everything including their good name and future possibilities. Ahai, of course, refuses responsibility for the secondary effects of his crimes, thinking only about money while Lifang silently pines for him and the life he promised her while dutifully doing his dirty work in the hope that they can finally be together. 

Pang stages the cat and mouse game between the earnest Ding and the amoral Ahai as an ironic battle of wits though the odd bursts of absurd humour often feel out of place alongside the sometimes grim story of underworld life. Yet it’s the spiky psychological drama between undercover cop Xiaotu (Jiang Mengjie) and gangster’s moll Lifang which really sets things alight as Lifang at once suspects Xiaotu is not all she seems but can’t help respecting her tough as nails survivor attitude. Meanwhile, Ding is given two additional reasons to chase Ahai besides his shining love of justice – the first being that Ahai loves pretending to be a law enforcement official and thereby tarnishing the reputation of the police, and the other being that Xiaotu is an old flame. Slick if superficial, The Big Call is a return to the HK cop dramas of old only robbed of its edgy street punk energy by the upscale and emotionless world of faceless cybercrime.


The Big Call was screened as part of the New York Asian Film Festival 2018.

HK trailer (English subtitles)