Friday, July 13, 2018

Nate Hood makes THE BIG CALL (2018) NYAFF 2018

Oxide Pang’s THE BIG CALLl may be one of the few times I’ve seen a film sabotaged by its need to flesh out its villains as sympathetic human beings. When we first meet Lin Yahai (Joseph Chang) and his lover Liu Lifang (Gwei Lun-mei), they’re depicted as the cruel, unfeeling, amoral heads of a Thai phone scamming ring defrauding innocent people out of their savings. An early montage sees the two of them literally throwing fistfuls of cash to groupies as their operators—Chinese nationals trafficked into Thailand where their passports are confiscated and they’re forced to work 14 hour days—steal tens of thousands of dollars from gullible seniors while what sounds like an industrial cover of Dies Irae drones in the background. They only get more vicious from there, with Liu going so far as to repeatedly threaten to kill her trafficked girls for disobedience.

The film even opens with a grim portrayal of the havoc they wreak: a police officer named Ding Xiaotian (Cheney Chen) fails to stop an elderly man from killing himself after losing all his savings to Lin and Liu’s ring. But a strange thing happens about halfway through—the film actually tries to get us to sympathize with the two of them. In a horrific twist of fate, their ring accidentally scams Lin’s sister out of her tuition money, causing her to kill herself like the man at the start of the film. (One of the cruelest and subtlest details of the film is that a multi-millionaire like Lin has done so little to support his family that his own sibling would be driven to suicide over losing a few thousand dollars.) And through a series of conversations with Xu Xiaotu (Jiang Mengjie), one of the trafficked slaves from Hong Kong who’s actually an undercover cop for a Sino-Thai joint task force working to bring the ring down, we learn that Liu is miserable in her relationship with Lin whom she suspects of cheating on her.

But by that point, the film has done such a good job of convincing us that they’re unrepentant monsters that these appeals towards the audience’s better nature fall flat. This is all a shame, for otherwise THE BIG CALL is an excellent, pulse-pounding thriller. Pang does an fantastic job building tension as we watch both the task force and the phone ring struggle to stay one step ahead of each other, particularly after Liu starts to suspect that Xu might not be who she says she is. The film eventually climaxes with a Hong Kong-style action scene of considerable merit that nonetheless feels out of place in a film about mind games, psychological manipulation, and intrigue, but no more than the villains’ ill-advised babyface turns. It’s a testament to Pang’s direction that THE BIG CALL manages to weather these miscalculations so successfully.

Rating: 7/10

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