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)

Shock Wave (拆彈專家, Herman Yau, 2017)

shock wave posterRecent Hong Kong action cinema has not exactly been known for its hero cops. Most often, one brave and valiant officer stands up for justice when all around him are corrupt or acting in self interest rather than for the good of the people. Shock Wave (拆彈專家) sees Herman Yau reteam with veteran actor Andy Lau turning in another fine action performance at 55 years of age as a dedicated, highly skilled and righteous bomb disposal officer who becomes the target of a mad bomber after blowing his cover in an undercover operation. These are universally good cops fighting an insane terrorist whose intense desire for revenge and familial reunion is primed to reduce Hong Kong’s central infrastructure to a smoking mess.

Some years prior to the main action, J S Cheung (Andy Lau) is undercover with a gang of bomb loving bank robbers. When they decide to load up a few taxis with explosives, Cheung just can’t let innocent people and fellow officers get caught in the crossfire and so he blows his cover and tips the cops off to the weaponised motor vehicles. Head honcho of the gang, Blast (Jiang Wu), is not best pleased especially as his younger brother Biao (Wang Ziyi) gets himself arrested. Flash forward to the present day and Blast has come up with his plot for revenge – placing large amounts of explosives in the Cross Harbour Tunnel and taking everyone in the general area hostage until the authorities agree to release his brother and he’s satisfied himself in outwitting Cheung.

In this at least Shock Wave fits neatly into the mad bomber genre as Blast goes to great lengths to terrorise the public for irrational and entirely selfish reasons. Blast’s original twin motives centre on a need to get his brother out of prison and the need to destroy Cheung but Biao has decided one of the reasons he quite liked being in prison was that Blast wasn’t there and Cheung isn’t really interested in playing Blast’s game. Blast, as his brother points out, is someone who rarely considers the thoughts or emotions of other people, acting selfishly and assuming his own desires are the only ones which matter. This essential selfishness is echoed in a fairly subtle point about the financial impact of the tunnel crisis and how others stand to profit from it while hundreds people remain terrified and captive inside a giant tube surrounded by water which may soon collapse if Blast loses his temper.

Th mad bomber may be a cinematic staple but Shock Wave relies too heavily on familiar genre elements to make much on an impact of its own. Characterisation is often shallow in the hero cop vs insane criminal set up with supporting characters reduced to a single prominent emotion. The inevitable romantic subplot gives Cheung an emotionally fragile, recently divorced school teacher as an angelic girlfriend only to have her experience sudden qualms about getting involved with someone who does such a dangerous job.

Even if the narrative fails to impress, Yau produces an exciting visual spectacle reportedly spending vast sums of money building an exact replica of the Cross Harbour Tunnel. Filled with explosions, gunfights, and high octane action Yau keeps the tension high by turning the dial right down as Cheung and his gang do their thing with cool, calm military precision disarming everything from C4 to unexploded World War II bombs.  At two hours, Shock Wave is pushing the ideal for an action thriller but largely makes its lengthy running time count despite a number of underdeveloped subplots.

A vehicle for Lau who also takes a producer credit, Shock Wave is defined by his performance as the dashing and heroic member of the bomb disposal squad. Jiang Wu’s mad bomber provides hearty support but is never given much to do other than emphasise his villainy with sneering taunts and occasional acts of cruelty. Cheung’s schoolteacher girlfriend Carmen, played by Song Li, is about as generic as they come seeming only to exist for the classic girlfriend in peril plot device but Song and Lau have good chemistry and the relationship does at least help to up the otherwise absent emotional content. Simply put, Shock Wave is an excuse for the ageing Lau to play the action hero once again and he plays it to the hilt. At times frustratingly formulaic, Shock Wave does manage to maintain the tension until the grippingly explosive finale whilst also paying tribute to those who run towards the crisis rather than away from it in full knowledge of the price they may pay in coming to the defence of ordinary people.


Shock Wave was the closing film of the 19th Udine Far East Film Festival and will also be released in UK cinemas from 5th May.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Dead or Alive: Final (Takashi Miike, 2002)

dead_or_alive_final_jap_chirashiThe Dead or Alive Trilogy began in a furious, drug fuelled hymn to violence in which a petty vendetta between the opposing forces of good and evil (mingled and bloody) eventually destroyed the entire world. Dead or Alive 2: Birds was an altogether more contemplative affair in which two orphaned boys rediscover each other as jaded hitmen and decide to put their talents to “good” use by donating the hit money to pay for medicinal drugs for impoverished children around the world. Strange and surreal, Birds moved beyond the first film’s absurd ending for an altogether more abstract approach to universe building but Final pushes the idea to its limit in a cyberpunk infused far future tale of rogue robots and sexual dictatorship.

Yokohama, 2346. A new society is being forged, a new social order has been created. All powerful Mayor Wu (Richard Chen) has decreed that the only true love is gay love and made heterosexuality taboo. Births are strictly controlled to maintain population numbers with contraception ruled mandatory. The heterosexual resistance has gone into hiding in a ruined part of the city, living in a free love commune in which the birth of children is a primary goal. Lead by Fong and his first lady Jun, the resistance aims to liberate the people from the yoke of the crazed dictator and create a better, freer world for the as yet unborn children of the future. Teaming up with a rogue “Replicant”, Ryo, (Sho Aikawa) the gang attempt to further their cause by kidnapping the young son of Wu’s chief of police, Honda (Riki Takeuchi), who later discovers some uncomfortable truths about his own existence.

The use of the world “Replicant” is a pointed one and an overt reference to Final’s key text – Blade Runner, though its intentions amount much more to a pastiche than an examination of the existential questions so central to the seminal cyberpunk classic. Online captions state the action is taking place in Yokohama – an industrial harbour town close to Tokyo, but is in reality a thinly disguised Hong Kong with a green tint. Nevertheless, Miike makes the most of rundown industrial complexes now overrun by nature and the symbols of historical hubris. Aside from the flying cars and other CGI touches, the dystopianism is all too real in its sense of economic and social failures which have allowed a man like Wu to run a strange fascist police state even in the absence of the necessary infrastructure.

In keeping with the Hong Kong setting the Yokohama of 2346 is largely Chinese with broad mix of intermingled languages. Once again the nature of family is called into question but this time more through a large scale change in the social order which sees birth strictly controlled through medical and cultural enforcement. The largely Cantonese speaking resistance movement want to create a world where children can be born and then grow up freely, neatly echoing the previous films’ preoccupation with the fates of children as considered by orphans. Aside from their idealism, the Resistance turns out not to be so far removed from the petty gangsters of the previous instalments as they ultimately turn on each other with deadly consequences.

Sho Aikawa and Riki Takeuchi face off once again with Aikawa playing a Rutger Hauer-esque android who proves his “humanity” through his affiliation with children. A “Replicant” from a long forgotten war, Ryo has superpowers which allow him to stop bullets in mid-air or send out sparks of energy but is also at home playing the clown as he brushes his teeth nonchalantly in the middle a fist fight or plays dead to entertain a little boy. Takeuchi’s Honda, by contrast, is the stereotypical gestapo inspired secret police chief whose family life is a hollow one devoid of genuine feeling and maintained solely for professional expectation.

If Miike has been playing Blade Runner all along, his finale jumps ship for Tetsuo: The Iron Man as the trilogy’s leading men relive the totality of their experiences across three different plains of existence before merging into one as a kind of angel of destruction. The cycle of violence has reached its apotheosis as the twin angels are sent to wreak revenge on those who have misused their authority. Shot on high grade video, Final makes the most of its more modest production values but can’t help suffering in comparison to its predecessors. The B-movie opening is a helpful clue to Miike’s intentions as he creates his own kind of sci-fi dystopia inspired by pop culture memories, but even if the overarching themes lack integrity, Final provides the perfect ending for this often frustratingly absurd series, defying rational explanations until the end of time.


Available now in UK from Arrow Video!

Original trailer (English subtitles)