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)

On Happiness Road (幸福路上, Sung Hsin-yin, 2017)

On happiness road posterSung Hsin-yin attempts a series of impossibles with her debut feature, On Happiness Road (幸福路上, Xìngfú Lùshang). In a bold move she has crafted what is possibly the last Taiwanese animated feature while attempting to pack 40 years of turbulent political history into the story of a lost middle-aged women ruminating on her cheerful, uncomplicated childhood on the distinctly humble Happiness Road. Battling the weight of parental expectation and the false promises of a better life overseas, her heroine, Chi, makes an enforced return to source on hearing that her beloved, part-aboriginal grandmother has passed away.

Chi (Gwei Lun-mei), an unhappy 30-something woman, receives the call in America where she has been living with her American husband. Unbeknownst to her family, Chi’s marriage is all but over and she finds herself at something of a crossroads, half wondering if it’s time to come home to Taiwan and half humiliated in being seen to have returned with her tail between her legs. She comes home, alone, to mourn her grandmother but finds herself wandering back through the streets of memory and fantasy recalling all the small details and minor incidents that brought her to his point in the hope of figuring out where it is she needs to go next.

Chi was born in 1975 on the very day that Chang Kai-shek died. Chang was by then a brutal dictator but the brainwashed little Chi who still sees his picture everywhere and has been taught to respect his many virtues idolises him all the same. Her family, uneducated ordinary working people, speak Taiwanese Hokkien at home but at school she has to speak Mandarin – the “official” language, all dialects are banned. Thus little Chi finds her parents’ language backward and embarrassing, their failure to adapt to “modernity” a hurdle in her own forward development.

As time moves on, Chi’s “Taiwaneseness” becomes something she feels she must sacrifice in order to purse the conventional success expected by her parents and the society at large. Little Chi, riding in the back of a pickup truck with her parents on the way to Happiness Road, asks them one of the biggest questions of all – what does “happiness” mean. Her parents, unable to answer, shush her, but her father (Chen Po-cheng) seems pleases his daughter has such big thoughts and wonders if she might become a philosopher one day. Oh no, replies her mother (Jane Liao). There’s no money in that – she’ll be a doctor! Her parents want for her all the material comforts of the settled middle classes, but her society tells her to attain them she must leave her nativeness behind – speak Mandarin, forget about granny’s ancient wisdom, and eventually go abroad leaving the “old fashioned” island far behind.

Chi has done everything she was supposed to do. She studied hard, got a good degree, got an OK job, and then ended up going to America almost on a whim. She reached the destination expected of her, but still she isn’t happy. Her marriage is failing as she and her American husband want very different things out of life and Chi wonders if she really belongs in this insincere culture which, at the end of the day, has never quite accepted her. In America she experienced mild forms of racism but then didn’t her half-American friend, Betty (Li Chia-hsiu) – blonde with blue eyes but speaking only Mandarin, experience exactly the same thing in Taiwan? Pregnant but seeking an escape from an unhappy marriage, Chi also worries what the future will be if she chooses to come home and raise her half-American child alone in a perhaps unforgiving society.

Yet reuniting with Betty she discovers that even if her life has not quite turned out the way she planned, she is blissfully happy as a single mother to two children, blonde like her but with brown eyes. Chatting with the ghost of her late grandmother who still has a few lessons to impart, Chi learns to see with the eyes of her heart and comes to realise that sometimes the road to happiness passes through a few uncertain turns but that that’s OK. Her parents, whom she feared would judge her for a failed marriage and a child born after divorce, are predictably enough only too happy at the prospect of their only daughter coming home for good and finally making them grandparents no matter the circumstances surrounding the origin of both those events. Chi may not have wanted the “road” her parents and her society had attempted to lay down before her, but discovers that departing from it is not failure and that “happiness” is a concept you are free to define for yourself. Beautifully animated and filled with whimsical flights of fancy, On Happiness Road is a sometimes melancholy but heartwarming tale of life in modern Taiwan as one lost woman finally discovers the road home and realises it has been waiting for her all along.


Screened at the 20th Udine Far East Film Festival.

International trailer (English subtitles)