Written by Liu Zhenyun, based on his own novel of the same title, the film revolves around two successful men whose marriages were wrecked when their wives uncovered their extramarital affairs through traces left in their cellphones. More broadly, the film explores the role of cellphones in interpersonal relationships in modern China, where the rapid development in information technology is having huge impacts on the way people communicate.
FEFJ favourite Feng Xiaogang returns with another Chinese New Year blockbuster. But Cell Phone is something different.
In his richest, most satisfyingly realized movie to date, Feng preserves the savvy social satire and verbal pyrotechnics that keep his loyal Chinese audience amused. And he adds new layers of depth, an emotional richness, a concern with love and loss that inflect his comedy with a new subtlety. Yan Shouyi (Feng Xiaogang regular Ge You) is a fast-talking TV host with a complicated lifestyle.
A comfortable Beijing nouveau-riche, he has a wife, a mistress, and a new lover. Through the miracle of modern cell phone technology (complete with nifty instant messaging that’s addicted millions of East Asian consumers), Yan tries to keep hopping between his various secret love lives. But cell phones betray as well as enable. When messages cross, his increasingly ludicrous tapestry of petty deceits becomes more and more untenable. As Yan’s splendidly improvised fibs lead to betrayal after betrayal, he’s at risk of losing his career, his wife, his family, and his own identity.
To his usual formula of witty machine-gun-fast dialogue, Feng adds lusciously dark cinematography by Zhao Wei (who’s photographed films by Zhang Yimou, Chen Kaige, and Woody Allen); a nostalgic back story in Yan’s rural hometown, and a gallery of sympathetically defined characters. Actress Xu Fan (Feng Xiaogang’s real-life wife) puts in a particulary, moving performance as Yan’s lover, and Fan Bingbing is perfect as Yan’s Monica Bellucci-esque mistress. This comedy of modern manners mixes its tones: along with the jokes, Feng insinuates mordant reflections on whether or not China’s technological “progress” has brought Chinese society forwards or backwards. Has the quality of our relationships kept up with the new tools we have for connecting with people?