China, 2016, colour, 2.35:1, 90 mins.
Director: Deng Andong 邓安东.
Above-average, high-concept Mainland horror just about goes the distance.
Chengdu, Sichuan province, southern China, Monday 25 May. Du Yang (Fang Lishen), a senior executive at a financial services company, wakes up to find himself buried alive in a coffin and with a head wound. His mobile phone rings and a voice, which says he is Du Yang 30 years from now, reminds him that in the past eight hours (since 14:00 that afternoon) his mistress has been killed, his wife has been knocked down by a car, and his daughter has been kidnapped. Suddenly, Du Yuan wakes up at home on the morning of the same day. He drives his young daughter, Du Mengmeng (Wang Xintong), to school but en route gets a call from the same voice, warning him not to leave his daughter alone. At his office he gets a call from his onetime mistress, Li Jia, who says she still loves him and wants to meet at a hotel at 14:00, otherwise she’ll spill the beans to his wife. That morning Du Yang also has a disagreement with his assistant Xiaofeng (Liu Xiaodong). At the hotel Du Yang finds Li Jia dead in the room and the police already arriving. On the way back to the office Li Jia calls and asks why he missed their date; angry, she sends pictures of her and Du Yang to his wife, Wang Yiran (Lisi Danni), who is shattered by the revelation. Du Yang drives to see his wife and sees her knocked down by a car. He then gets a call from the same voice who tells him to rescue his daughter, who’s in mortal danger in an abandoned building. As night falls, he investigates. Suddenly, Du Yuan wakes up at home on the morning of 26 May. Outside his office, investors are demanding their money back and the company’s head has gone on holiday to Southeast Asia. Du Yang restores morale by inviting all the staff to dinner that evening. Meanwhile, a masked young man secretly bugs his car. Then his phone rings and the same voice says his wife is about to knocked down by a car…
Anyone who gets annoyed by a mobile phone ringing should stay well clear of Nightmare Call 诡梦凶铃, an above-average Mainland horror in which a young finance executive has his life destroyed by a persistent mysterious caller. Billing itself as China’s first horror movie centred on a single character (not quite true), the high-concept film is basically a one-trick pony that only just manages to go the distance. But it manages to sustain interest for most of its 90 minutes by clever use of a rondo structure, and is energised by mobile direction and camerawork plus a twitchy performance by Hong Kong singer-actor Fang Lishen 方力申 [Alex Fong Lik-sun] as the strung-out yuppie.
After a striking opening in which the hero, Du Yang, wakes up to find himself buried alive in a coffin, and his mobile phone ringing, the script quickly plays the obvious card by revealing it’s all a dream. But as Du Yang wakes up at home, starts a day at the office, and is soon running hither and thither trying to save his wife, clingy ex-mistress and young daughter from various forms of imperilment, a rondo structure develops, with each segment also shown to be a dream. Apart from the who/why – which obviously isn’t going to be revealed until the end – the main point of interest becomes which one of the rondos will turn out not to be a dream.
For his directing debut, Guangdong-born Deng Andong 邓安东, 30, an author/screenwriter with experience in TV drama, has clearly thought through the problem of keeping an audience hooked for 90 mins while waiting for a big revelation, as well as the old chestnut of “it was all a dream” (frequently used in Mainland horrors due to official discouragement of ghost/supernatural elements). Though it’s never more than genre fodder, Nightmare Call doesn’t have the randomly assembled feel of so many Mainland horrors, even if it doesn’t come off as powerfully as it should, mainly due to the weak, repetitive dialogue. It has some similarities to South Korean thriller 90 Minutes 90분 (Bak Seon-uk 박선욱 | 朴善郁, 2012), in which a cocky executive’s life is destroyed by a phone caller who sends him running round town. That film failed to live up to its early promise; by aiming lower, Nightmare Call is slightly more successful.
Fang, 37, who’s no stranger to genre fare but has never played as extensive a role as this, is convincing as a Mainland yuppie and moves between professional confidence and private paranoia with ease, even though he’s only required to be frantic for large stretches of the movie. The rest of the cast don’t get much of a look-in, apart from Liu Xiaodong 刘小东 (okay) as the lead’s uppity office assistant and child actress Wang Xintong 王馨彤 (ditto) as the daughter. Chengdu-born hip-hop singer Lisi Danni 李斯丹妮, 26, who played the punky lead breakdancer in Fearless 热血街头 (2012), cameos in a much more conventional role as Du Yang’s wife – though it’s a nice nod to the film being set in the Sichuan capital rather than Beijing or Shanghai.
Technical credits are modest but okay. The film’s production title was the less generic-sounding 回头路 (roughly, “Turning Back”), which better describes the content. The release title literally means “Weird Dreams, Ominous Ringing”.
Presented by Paradise Pictures (CN). Produced by Paradise Pictures (CN).
Script: Deng Andong. Photography: Zhuang Guoting. Editing: Wang Zhengkun. Music: Duan Xuan, Jin Yongmin. Art direction: Meng Xing. Costumes: Xu Yongqi. Styling: Wang Liyun. Sound: Zhang Li. Action: Xie Zhigang. Executive direction: Zhang Hongxing.
Cast: Fang Lishen [Alex Fong Lik-sun] (Du Yang), Liu Xiaodong (Xiaofeng), Wang Xintong (Du Mengmeng, Du Yang’s daughter), Lisi Danni (Wang Yiran, Du Yang’s wife), He Yingqiao (Li Jia’s ex-husband), Zhu Wensheng (Hu), Sun Xiaoya (teacher), Chen Caibao (dirty old man), Liu Delun (old woman burning paper), Lv Ning (old client), Lin Yi (Lv, client with cash bag), Wang Jiaxu (Chen Dong), Wu Keke (real Li Jia), Xiang Keying (false Li Jia).
Release: China, 23 Sep 2016.