THE BIG CALL (2017) review

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Ding Xiaotian (Cheney Chen) is a young cop who just witnessed his former teacher commit suicide after losing all his money to a phone scam. The case is thus personal, and soon Ding is recruited by Tan Sirong (Eddie Cheung) of the ATFC (Anti-Telecommunication Fraud Centre) to help expose two master fraudsters, Lin Ahai (Joseph Chang) and Liu Lifang (Gwei Lun Mei), who operate a vast fraud network across Southeast Asia, with headquarters and call center in Thailand. ATFC agent Xu Xiaotu (Jiang Mengjie), who’s also Ding’s ex-girlfriend, has infiltrated these headquarters, and as the noose tightens around the fraudsters, suspicion from Liu falls on her.

One of Oxide Pang’s best films – whether as a director or co-director with his brother Danny – The Big Call went by fairly unnoticed in China and subsequently didn’t have much of an international career, despite a prime spot at the New York Asian Film Festival. Yes it is a remarkably solid, at times inspired thriller, that meticulously dissects the way phone scams function, while deftly shedding light into the scammer’s psyche. For a film with a lot of phone calls and staring at computer screens it’s surprisingly absorbing and suspenseful, with entire segments working almost a docudrama: there’s a fascinating tour of the fraudsters’ Thailand call center, during which we witness the formation the caller’s training, and realize that they’re semi-captives in an outfit that gives itself the outward appearance of a legitimate company (with company trips, imagine that). Depiction of the ATFC’s methods and inner workings is sadly more vague, with mostly orders given from a command room, and an interesting but underdeveloped relationship between Eddie Cheung and Cheney Chen’s characters.

Jiang Mengjie’s infiltration subplot also leads to some rather gripping Infernal Affairs-style undercover suspense, but Jiang is more credible as the airhead she poses as, than as the tough agent her character actually is. In fact, almost every actor in the film pales in comparison with Gwei Lun Mei, who unexpectedly finds here one of her best roles. It’s a superbly complex performance, the actress mixing shades of hard-edged authority, callous, slightly cruel indifference, sharp resourcefulness, loving vulnerability and even girly enthusiasm, into a memorable character worthy of at least one more film (which won’t happen, of course). She’s well-matched by Joseph Chang, who has less screen time, but cuts a figure both charismatic and pathetic – a man who has built a house, but deep down knows it’s a house of cards. The pair’s chemistry is flawless, taking on an almost Bonnie-and-Clyde dimension in the film’s final reel, criminal lovers a small part of you wants to see get off scott free. The film’s epilogue comes with a revelation regarding their couple that is quietly devastating and a perfect narrative and karmic coda.

Behind the camera, Oxide Pang at times resorts to some of his tiresome old tricks: overly jittery camerawork, gratuitous ‘first person shooter’ angles, and enough lens flare to give J.J. Abrams a seizure. Still, his directorial grip is firm, and after holding our attention for one hour and half with mostly phone calls, computer screens and hushed conversations, he lets loose with a solid action finale that too often stretches believability but adds a welcome dash of explosive flamboyance to the film, and cleverly – read, indirectly – asks us which side we’re on.

Long Story Short: A riveting thriller with unexpected subtlety and a superb double act by Guey Lun Mei and Joseph Chang, The Big Call is only weighed down by some frustratingly underdeveloped subplots and a few distracting stylistic choices. ***1/2

 

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