Hani Mustafa samples an offering of many flavours
The detective-suspense genre is as popular in Egyptian cinema as it is in the rest of the world. Films like Kamal El-Sheikh's Ala Man Nutliq Al-Rissass (Who Do We Shoot), Mamdouh Shukri's Za'er Al-Fagr (Dawn Caller) and Ahmed Fouad Darwish's I'dam Taleb Thanawi (Execution of a High School Student) bear testimony to the fact. Yet Khali Minal Cholesterol (Cholesterol Free) -- Mohamed Abu Seif's latest -- was a box-office flop. An Eid release, it serves the same kind of dish as the aforementioned films, albeit with a comic, satirical twist. And it is this innovation that could explain the film's failure: everyone knows that Eid viewers prefer films that require minimal mental exercise; many seek out the verbally farcical; few pay attention to the ingenuity or efficacy of the plot. Nor can the pigeonholing of comedian Ashraf Abdel-Baqi as a star of new-wave comedy have helped.
The opening credits give way to a man walking out of national television headquarters; in the next scene he is at an advertising agency taking a verbal beating from his colleagues. The viewer understands little other than the fact that the man, Ayoub Ayoub (Ashraf Abdel-Baqi) has broadcast a tape "that will bring the building down on everybody's head". Thus far the viewer sees everything as if through Ayoub's eyes, a technique through which suspense is progressively escalated, reaching a crescendo at the point when Ayoub, in response to the CEO of the agency (Hassan Hosni) showering him with blame, picks up a baseball bat and begins to wreck the agency, starting with Hosni's glass desk -- the point at which the viewer sees his face for the first time. The script jumps from this point to the investigation undertaken by the police officer (Khaled Saleh) trying to find out what motivated the rampage -- a process in which, through a series of flashbacks, witnesses give various accounts of the events leading up to it. (This gives rise to a non-chronological sequence interspersed with light-hearted dances.) The actual action starts when the officer is assigned the case by the Minister of Interior. As yet Ayoub cannot be questioned: he has been in a coma since the day. And in his quest to get to the root of the matter the officer starts with Ayoub's neighbours.
His first stop is a Mrs Nazifa who is in the know about Ayoub's upbringing. Ayoub's mother Gamila (Ilham Shahine), she reveals, is a "special needs person" -- a politically correct term derived directly from awareness campaigns. This tactic recurs through the duration of the film, which plays on phrases gleaned from popular slogans, engaging with the advertising industry. Abu Seif's own experience of the advertising business no doubt plays its part here. Since his debut Al-Tufaha Wal- Gomgoma (The Apple and the Skull) from the mid- 1980s, Abu-Seif has worked uninterruptedly in advertising, doing movies only every now and again. Mrs Nazifa -- herself is eponymous with a character from a famous detergent ad -- will not let the officer into her house until he puts on surgical shoe bags. (The dances are likewise particularly reminiscent of TV ads in the way they are shot.), Nazifa elaborates, Gamila was so attached to her son that she would accompany him to school and Art College classes, attending alongside him. In another flashback, it transpires that Ayoub is the son of the famous artist Ayoub, who spent his entire fortune on special needs support. Ayoub has remained childish due to his relationship with his mother. The viewer gradually finds out about his kindness and the talent he inherited from his father before the script tackles the script's two central questions: how Ayoub managed to broadcast the troublesome tape on air (never mind its content), and how he became involved with the advertising agency in the first place.
In order to answer the first question, the officer seeks out an important television official who treated Ayoub like a son. In another flashback employees queuing outside the official's office to have her sign their documents hand Ayoub the papers, and on entering the room he accomplishes the task effortlessly in return for a few jokes and a portrait of her he sketches in the time it takes to sign them. Security personnel turn out to be suspiciously sympathetic with Ayoub, too, never searching him on entry. The answer to the second question is delivered in another flashback during which Camilia (Kholoud), the advertising agency executive, is seen with the television official: the one explains to the other that the censors will not allow the broadcast of a hair-removal advertisement because they refuse to show bare legs. Ayoub, who has been standing around by coincidence, solves the problem by drawing a before and after picture of a cactus plant that has used the machine and throwing in a comment explaining the idea. It is then that Camilia decides to offer him a job in the agency's creative department. In this postmodern comment on the advertising industry, Abu Seif includes the character of Barhouma Mer'sh (Caroline Khalil) to evoke satellite channels. A TV presenter whose insubstantial reports on Ayoub's crime end with the name of the place from which they are transmitted (and include an ad for the nearby grocer), she is a parody of the kind of reporting with which Arab satellite channels have come to be identified.
Having introduced Ayoub so thoroughly, the script moves to the reasons Ayoub recorded and broadcast a tape that undermined the agency, then lost his temper when he was criticised for it. It alludes to his drug abuse -- down to the heroin with which the CEO provides him in an attempt to maximise productivity. At a deeper level, it draws the link between the influence of his mother -- her mentality can hardly be reconciled with the pretensions of advertising, which results in a rift in their relations that he finds profoundly troubling -- and the fact that she died of heart trouble despite using a widely advertised brand of cholesterol-free oil. After her death Ayoub proposes to Camilia and is rejected. Thus everything builds up to the act of moral suicide that he is now staying up all night to plan. It is only now, in an attempt to loosen up the melodramatic turn of events, that the contents of the tape are revealed, when the officer asks Camilia to play it for him: it contains a hysterically funny satire conceived and executed by Ayoub, which parodies not only TV ads and video clips but all kinds of commodities -- food, real estate, cars.
In his attempt to consolidate his status as a star comedian (established in such films as Hassan wa Aziza and Rasha Gari'a ), and at the same time to establish himself as an actor capable of portraying a complex character in a complex film, Ashraf Abdel- Baqi ended up with one of the lowest box-office revenues in the Eid season and the weeks that followed; in later weeks there were barely enough bookings to start the film. But Abdel-Baqi should saluted for his courage and innovation regardless of the box office. Cholesterol Free is a spirited and endearing gesture.