Kill MobileReviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 12/30/18 09:39:44
"Kill Mobile" arrives in theaters roughly a month and a half after "Intimate Strangers", the Korean remake of the Italian film "Perfect Strangers", and about one month before the Mexican version, with at least half a dozen other adaptations of this highly-franchisble story either already completed and released or in production around the world. I suspect, when all of them are lined up next to each other, this Chinese version will be among the lesser entries; between censorship and general timidity, it lacks what made at least the Korean version a piercing black comedy.Wen Bo (Tian Yu) and Dai Dai (Dai Lele) are hosting a nice little dinner party with some longtime friends: Married couple Wu Xioajiang (Qiao Shan) and his wife Li Nan (Huo Siyan), who are leaving their kids at home with Xiaojiang's mother; screenwriter Jia Di (Tong Dawei) and pretty young fiancee Bai Xuejiao (Xi Mengyao); and the currently single Han Xiao (Ma Li), who seemed alarmingly ready to skip the dinner and the rest of her life before getting a reminder on her mobile phone. Addiction to those devices comes up as a topic of conversation, and psychologist Dai Dai suggests an experiment - they leave their phones on the table so that everyone can see all the messages and notifications, and calls get answered on speaker.
It's easy to see why the makers of the original film hae been able to so successfully franchise it over the past year and a half; it opens up the "friendly gathering going right to hell because something throws the equilibrium off or someone unexpected shows up" to new possibilities that don't bog things down: A text message or call can pop up, wreak some havoc, and then not hang around, unnecessarily stealing the spotlight from the characters who we're going to spend some time with. And even if you've seen another version and know some of what's coming, the execution of the jokes is often pretty good.
Director Yu Miao and writers Li Xiao, Wang Huan, and Wang Si often seem to stumble around the crux of what makes this an intriguing story by focusing so much on mobile phones themselves, with transitions often built around people outside the party engrossed by their screens and Han Xiao talking about the actual phones at the climax: It's not so much that the phones themselves are bad, but they result in people having their secrets with them at all times, ready to upend one's regular life at any time. The Korean film (at least) raised the question of whether one is ultimately better off to have things out in the open, even if the way it did so is a bit weird. The mid-credits scene that serves the same purpose here is less thoughtful, instead aiming for a tacky sort of self-congratulation.
Sadly, the film doesn't deserve much congratulation of any sort. Some of its problems are just sloppiness, not bothering to introduce things enough for them to be familiar before going for the twist, something which fixed by not cutting away from the party for side-stories that don't really matter. Others may just be a matter of this American viewer not getting the localization. Still, it's difficult to miss how much fear of censorship cuts what makes other versions effective out: Not only are pat reward and laughably random punishments on tap to make for clean endings, but the sex of one character has been changed so that the screenplay could retain all the gay-panic material but not counter it with any actual gay characters or sympathy for what it must be like to live in that environment. It rips the heart of the movie and offers up nothing with which to replace it.
Ma Li acquits herself well in that reconfigured role; as the singleton at the party, she must work a little harder than those with the defined, easy relationships and standard banter to fall back on, playing Han Xiao as an intelligent observer while also building up her own issues. She's probably the most interesting character there, although both Tong Dawei & Huo Siyan and Qiao Shan & Xi Mengyao do good work during the film's comedic stretches, one couple contentious and the other saccharine, although Xi gets dealt as difficult a hand as her character as the film shifts toward the dramatic.There's at least one more version of this story on the North American release schedule, the others will certainly start making their way to video and streaming soon enough, and you have to figure that whoever got the American remake rights will do something eventually. Maybe more of them will turn out like this, grasping the surface elements but not what makes them work, but there will at least be other options where the same story is (potentially) done well enough to be worth franchising.
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