Mixing the emotional depth of his marital drama with the insouciant satire of contempo Chinese consumerism, helmer Feng Xiaogang comes up with his subtlest comedy to date in "Cell Phone." This ironic yarn about a serial philanderer tripped up by mobile technology could help to break down resistance to accessible movies from China.

Mixing the emotional depth of his marital drama “Sigh” (2000) with the insouciant satire of contempo Chinese consumerism in “Big Shot’s Funeral” (2002), helmer Feng Xiaogang comes up with his subtlest comedy to date in “Cell Phone.” Released last December, film rang up the biggest numbers so far for the Sino hitmeister (north of $6 million), yet surprisingly still awaits platforming by a major Western fest. With a confident offshore push by Columbia TriStar, this entertainingly ironic yarn about a serial philanderer tripped up by modern mobile technology could help to break down occidental resistance to accessible movies from mainland China.

Feng’s regular male lead, popular comedian Ge You (here with a full head of hair) plays Yan Shouyi, host of an issue-driven TV talkshow called “Let the Truth Speak” (You yi shuo yi). Yan is actually the worst advertisement for the truth: His script is penned by his producer, university professor Fei Mo (Zhang Guoli), and for the past couple of years he’s been having an on-off extramarital affair with an ambitious young editor at a publishing company, Wu Yue (Fan Bingbing).

Yan’s world starts to fall apart when he accidentally leaves his cell phone at home. His trusting wife, Yu Wenjuan (Zhang Lu), answers a call in which Wu blurts out, “Why haven’t you called for so long?” before abruptly hanging up. Yan manages to talk his way out of that snafu, but when his wife realizes he’s been lying about a supposed business meeting and sees a love-bite on his shoulder, she promptly divorces him.

Six months later, Yan has become very friendly with another woman, Shen Xue (Xu Fan, helmer’s real-life wife and regular star). Her no-nonsense attitudes are a match for Yan’s big-shot celebrity, and the pair eventually starts living together. However, when Yan’s wife gives birth to a child she was pregnant with (unknown to Yan) when they divorced, and Yan tries to make up with her, Shen starts getting jealous. And that’s without knowing that Yan is still seeing the younger Wu.

Given the especially intrusive role of cell phones in East Asian life, script by well-known novelist Liu Zhenyun has a lot of incidental fun with the culture. But pic never overplays its potential for farce, making the point early on that the trilling little handsets are merely a symptom of their owners’ flaws rather than the cause.

In a neat, comic-ironic meeting scene constantly interrupted by calls, the philosophical Fei notes that a cell phone is an extension of one’s mouth, and one’s mouth is an extension of one’s heart and soul. Punning on the Mainland term for mobiles, Fei warns, “They’re not handsets (shouji), they’re hand grenades (shoulei).”

Film’s theme of people being betrayed by what they say — a human weakness magnified by cell phone technology — is set in a broader historical frame that raises the obvious point of whether the older, simpler life wasn’t better. A preface, set in 1969 in Yan’s hometown in Henan province, shows the first phone line being installed in the simple, hard-working mining village.

The further irony here is that this was during the worst period of the Cultural Revolution, when everyone was betrayed by what they said. But throughout the film, trips back home are used as a reminder of the values Yan has lost — a familiar device in Chinese movies but nonetheless valid.

A past master at straight-faced comedy, Ge is aces as the charmingly, almost schoolboyishly devious Yan, all the funnier for hardly looking like your average Romeo. He’s well partnered by Zhang Guoli (“Sigh”) as his philosophical producer-buddy, and well matched by TV looker Fan Bingbing as the taken-for-granted, sexy g.f.

Xu makes the other g.f. a harder character to empathize with, and one who — with her mixture of toughness and fragility — the script never quite nails.

Sizable supporting cast is fine, with Yang Xin standing out in the double role of a peasant bride (in the preface) and her ditzy, loud-mouthed daughter, and Zhang Lu quietly touching as Yan’s wife. Popular comic Fan Wei (“The Parking Attendant in July”) contribs a colorful portrait of Yan’s hometown half-brother.

Technically, film is as smooth as Feng’s other works, with an avoidance of summery lensing by Zhao Fei that gives the pic a cold, clear look, apt to the subject matter. A brief burst of flashy CGI at start and finish (showing cell phone technology) is up to snuff, though the persistent product placement for China Mobile becomes wearisome.

For the record, a factor in the pic’s local success was that it was popularly seen as based on the real-life story of popular CCTV personality Cui Yongyuan, who was replaced on the show “Real Talk” (Shi hua shi shuo) by a woman presenter, He Jing. In a curious mirroring of the film’s theme, Cui has said he feels betrayed by helmer Feng, with whom he says he discussed the pic’s idea.

Cell Phone

Market / China - Hong Kong

Production

A Columbia TriStar Film Distributors Intl. release of a China Film Group Beijing Film Studio, Huayi Brothers & Taihe Film Investment Co. (China)/Columbia Pictures Film Production Asia (Hong Kong) presentation, in association with China Film Co-Production Co. (International sales: Huayi Brothers, Beijing.) Produced by Wang Zhongjun, Yang Buting. Executive producers, Wang Zhonglei, Han Sanping, He Ping. Co-producers, Wang Yi, Shi Dongming, Lu Ying, Zhao Haicheng, Yan Yujing. Directed by Feng Xiaogang. Screenplay, Liu Zhenyun, based on his novel.

Crew

Camera (color, widescreen), Zhao Fei; editor, Zhou Ying; music, Su Cong; art director, Liu Xingang; sound (Dolby Digital), Wan Danrong, Wang Zhe; assistant director, Lao Yun. Reviewed on videodisc, London, May 9, 2004. (In Cannes Film Festival -- market.) Running time: 106 MIN.

With

Ge You, Xu Fan, Zhang Guoli, Fan Bingbing, Zhang Lu, Yang Xin, Fan Wei, Huang Suying, Zhao Kui'e, Cha Mingrong. (Mandarin dialogue)
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