I Phone You
China/Germany, 2011, colour, 1.85:1, 94 mins.
Director: Tang Dan 唐丹.
Modest but engaging tragi-comedy centred on a Chongqing girl stranded in Berlin.
Chongqing, central China, the present day. After a one-night stand in a hotel with travelling businessman Yu Guanghao (Wu Dawei), Ling Ling (Jiang Yiyan), who works as a “flower-clown” delivery girl for a small florist, receives a gift of a mobile phone from Yu Guanghao, who’s already back in Berlin. After calling each other for some time, she warms to the idea of visiting him in Berlin and flies in, unannounced, intending to stay two or three weeks. However, she’s met at Tegel airport not by Yu Guanghao but by his German employee-cum-bodyguard Marco Jakob (Florian Lukas), who checks her into a modest hotel under instructions to keep her busy before putting her on a plane back home. Next morning, Ling Ling finds her money and passport have gone missing; but she still manages to give Marco Jakob the slip and sets out to find Yu Guanghao, using an address he’d previously given her over the phone. The address is fake, and Ling Ling is first mistakenly kidnapped by a Vietnamese supermarket owner’s men and then taken into custody by the police and put in a hostel for the homeless. Meanwhile, Marco Jakob has been instructed by his boss to find her, or else.
A Chinese-German co-production that doesn’t go the expected route of becoming just a glossy tourist brochure for Berlin, I Phone You 爱封了 benefits from an unsaccharine script by veteran writer-director Wolfgang Kohlhaase and, in the most extensive role of her career so far, a thoroughly engaging performance from actress Jiang Yiyan 江一燕 (One Summer with You 与你同在的夏天, 2005; Deadly Delicious 双食记, 2008). Jiang’s fresh charm helped sustain recent rom-com The Pretending Lovers 假装情侣 (2011) but here she has to carry the film for large stretches on her own, as a young Chongqing woman who’s avoided by her so-called “lover” when she arrives unannounced in Berlin one day. Phone isn’t your average glossy Chinese rom-com set in a photogenic European city, or a misconceived cross-cultural comedy like Perfect Baby 巴黎宝贝 (2011), set in Paris; rather, it’s a modest little tragi-comedy that has a real feel for its two locations and, like Jiang’s performance, stirs a little bit of (East Berlin) grit into its summery charm.
Though he played no part in the production, the common element behind some of the off-screen talent is director Andreas Dresen (Grill Point Halbe Treppe, 2002), with whom both Kohlhaase and d.p. Andreas Höfer have worked. The 80-year-old Kohlhaase, like Dresen also a born and bred East Berliner, wrote two of the best films about life in that part of the city pre- and post-unification – the 1980 Solo Sunny and 2005 Summer in Berlin Sommer vorm Balkon, the latter also shot by Höfer. Add to them director Tang Dan 唐丹, who was born in Chongqing and lived for 14 years in Berlin, and the result is a movie that knows its two cities and its people, and can communicate a proper feel for life there while still remaining audience-friendly. (Before she met Kohlhaase, Tang had orginally intended the film to be her graduation work.)
Given the amount of time the audience is to spend with Jiang’s stranded Ling Ling, the script wisely spends a good 20 minutes building her character at home with her job (a bubbly flower-girl) and easygoing girl friends. By the time she arrives in Berlin, the viewer already knows she’s a typical young Chongqing woman – practical, determined, life-loving, chance-taking. So, as she tries to survive 48 hours in a foreign city with just a mobile phone but no passport, money or a word of German, there’s at least a semi-believable element to the story.
Tang and Kohlhaase don’t push the flimsy material any further than it can bear, and the tone is kept pretty light throughout, with a series of character vignettes (Kida Khodr Ramadan as a Turkish taxi-driver, Tino Mewer as a penniless student, Marie Gruber as a tramp). Playing the only other significant role in the film, Florian Lukas – again, another born and bred East Berliner – brings a Teutonic version of Jiang’s charm and grit to bear on his character, an employee who’s been lumbered with keeping his boss’ one-night stand busy and putting her on the next plane back to China. There’s no great chemistry between him and Jiang, but enough to make the final scenes believable. Chinese American Wu Dawei 吴大维 [David Wu] is perfectly cast as the elusive, teflon-coated lover.
Tang, who made the likeable kid’s soccer movie Dream Team 梦之队 (2008) for Beijing Olympics year, directs smoothly enough. The punning Chinese title, which literally means “love sealed”, also sounds in Mandarin exactly like “love crazy”, as well as (the prominently featured) “iPhone”.
Presented by Taihe Universal Film Investment (CN), Ray Production (CN), Reverse Angle (Germany). Produced by Ray Production (CN).
Script: Wolfgang Kohlhaase. Photography: Andreas Höfer. Editing: Sebastian Thümler. Music: SMOD. Art direction: Li Yading, Susanne Hopf. Costume design: Sabine Greunig. Sound: Fang Tao, Peter Schmidt.
Cast: Jiang Yiyan (Ling Ling), Florian Lukas (Marco Jakob), Wu Dawei [David Wu] (Yu Guanghao), Wang Haizhen (Yu Guanghao’s wife), Deng Jiajia (Zhazha, Ling’s friend), He Bing (Chongqing flowershop owner), Zhao Yingying (Jingjing), He Hongshan (Xiaoli), Pu Mingyue (Xiaolu), Annette Frier (Susi, Marco Jakob’s girlfriend), Kida Khodr Ramadan (Turkish taxi driver), Tino Mewer (student in Berlin flat), Aaron Lê (Vietnamese man with dog), Marie Gruber (Ling Ling’s homeless roommate), Huang Jie (Chongqing deliveryman), Xiao Feng (woman who rejects bear gift), Yu Hongjun (Wang), Gao Jing (woman by door), Liu Xiaochun (underwear saleslady), Zhang Ming (young man at disco), Lin Yixue (wedding host), Liang Wei (groom), Xin Daixia (bride), Olga Heicke (girl in park), Olov Ludwig (fireman), Heike Hanold-Lynch (public-order officer), Yung Ngô (Bao, driver), Ðặng Ngọc Long (supermarket manager), Jorres Risse (Benny, bar waiter), Fritz Roth (policeman), Ibrahima Sanogo (African hotel receptionist), Christian Sengewald (bar waiter), Wolfgang Stein (doorkeeper), Godehard Giese (policeman), Nicole Ernst (welfare officer), Yuan Li (Chinese tour guide), Laura Lo Zito (student’s girlfriend).
Release: China, 13 Oct 2011; Germany, 26 May 2011.
(Review originally published on Film Business Asia, 5 Dec 2011.)