BEIJING — BEIJING - In the hottest movie in China this winter, Cell Phone, a dejected girlfriend quietly confronts her lover with an incriminating photograph, a picture sent electronically to his cellular phone while he was out.
It's a sad moment of truth in the darkly comic drama, but not everyone at a recent screening could hear all the dialogue. During the scene, three cell phones started ringing loudly, and the phones were answered - reminding the audience that no matter what's going on in China, somebody will be talking over it, during it and about it on their phones.
On screen and off, the message in China is roughly the same: Cellular phones have transformed how people relate to one another, and it hasn't all been good. Cell Phone has been released for the movie season leading up to Chinese New Year, a weeklong holiday that starts Thursday that gives the entire country a much-needed break.
Chinese New Year is the most anticipated of the country's three weeklong holidays, more central to life than the Labor Day holiday on May 1 and the National Day holiday Oct. 1 that marks the founding of the People's Republic. In the coming days, tens of millions of people will travel by bus, train and plane to reunite with their families for a New Year's Eve feast.
Usually, the movie promoted for the New Year season is heartwarming and uplifting, a family film for a time when families get together. Cell Phone, though, has spurred marital spats and discord in China, where the social impact of mobile phones may be greater than anywhere else in the world.
Cell Phone captures the negative side of this transformation. In the movie, an unfaithful television talk-show host deceives his wife, his girlfriend and another lover through various cellular means.
He starts yelling into the phone in one call, pretending there's a bad connection. He presses a button to reject an incoming call from his lover while he is getting a foot massage with his girlfriend, then pretends that he answered the phone and that no one is on the other end, finally "hanging up" in feigned puzzlement. He later calls his lover from a bathroom, only to be caught sitting fully clothed on the toilet. When confronted, he meekly flushes the toilet.
The host, divorced but cheating on his girlfriend, tells her at one point, "I'm trying to find a wife, not a spy." At another, he calmly tells his girlfriend on the phone that he is "in a meeting" when he is with his ex-wife after she gave birth to their child. Chinese newspapers have reported since the movie's release that the excuse of being in a meeting is being met with increasing suspicion by spouses and girlfriends.
Cell Phone has prompted numerous accounts of couples fighting after watching the movie and of men excusing themselves to go to the bathroom so they could delete messages and records on their phones.
China Mobile has said publicly that a scene in the movie, in which the host's girlfriend and the wife of a colleague obtain the men's cell phone records by showing their IDs, could not happen in real life.
Some women have been disturbed to learn that boyfriends and husbands knew certain tricks about cell phones shown in the movie, including that when the battery is removed while the phone is on, callers are told that the phone is "out of the service area," not that the phone has been turned off.
In a case reported this month by the official New China News Agency, a couple in the northern city of Tianjin quarreled after seeing the movie when the woman demanded to check her husband's phone. He threw the phone at her, and she ended up in a hospital with a slight con- cussion.
For the movie's director, Feng Xiaogang, Cell Phone marks a commercially serendipitous convergence of art and culture. Released last month, its box office take of $6.1 million has nearly matched that of the opening of last year's No. 1 hit, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets.
A few years ago, such a movie would hardly have been conceivable. As recently as the 1980s, the vast majority of Chinese did not have telephones of any kind. In the movie's opening scene, set during the Cultural Revolution, rural villagers wait in line to use the town's one public phone, kept under lock and key by an attendant.
Today, virtually every stratum of Chinese society is saturated with mobile phones, from migrant workers to corporate executives. There are more than 260 million cell phone users, according to government figures, a tenfold increase from five years ago. A decade ago, the figure was under 1 million. With text messaging - a ubiquitous practice here - the cell phone has brought millions of Chinese closer together, perhaps closer at times than they'd prefer.
In the movie, a colleague of the talk-show host observes, "If things go on like this, your cell phone won't be a cell phone. What will it be? A hand grenade."
The film's director said people shouldn't take the point too seriously, but he does see a threat to privacy in the cell phone, especially in the case of phones with features such as cameras and recording devices.
"When people have cell phones, it diminishes the space between people, and their personal space collapses," Feng said in an interview. His movie's unfaithful central characters, the talk-show host and his colleague - whose wife also finds out he's cheating - long for the days before modern communication.
"Rural society was much better," the producer concludes. "Travel and communication were underdeveloped. If you went to Beijing for exams, you couldn't return for years. After you returned, whatever you said, people believed you. But right now," he says, pulling out his cell phone, everything is "close, too close. So close it suffocates people."
For the unfaithful, the collapse in personal space is not only troublesome, Feng said, it can get them caught in affairs they could have kept secret in another era.
In the movie, the talk-show host's secret lover implies that she'll expose him with a recording - made on her cell phone - of their amorous moments. His girlfriend ultimately discovers proof of his infidelity on his cell phone, much as his ex-wife before her had learned of his cheating from the phone. In the end, the unfaithful hero throws the offending phone into a fire.
"Right now, if people have secrets, they won't tell others, but they'll tell their cell phones," Feng said. "But cell phones aren't committed to keeping people's secrets."
The young and middle-age couples filing out of a recent weeknight screening in Beijing seemed more amused than disturbed at the movie's insights into their lives.
"There are similar experiences [in real life], but not as rampant as in the movie," said Ge Jing, a 21-year-old mathematics student at Beijing Union University.
Her boyfriend, Xing Yongyue, 22, countered with a laugh: "Perhaps it is as rampant. You just haven't seen it."
For Xing, the far greater practical concern about cell phones is the constant ringing in every setting, an annoyance parodied to great effect in the movie. But cell phones, Xing said, are a good thing for relationships.
"If you want to cheat on your spouse, you can use cell phones to cheat each other's feelings, but otherwise cell phones, in a good relationship, can make your partner free of worry," he said. "It's very important in your work and your life. Anyway, I cannot live without my cell phone."