Tracing Desire: Cell Phone and
the Self-Reflexivity of Contemporary Chinese Media

By Kun Qian

MCLC Resource Center Publication (Copyright May 2011)

Film poster for Cell Phone

Fig. 1: The film Cell Phone (2003), directed by Feng Xiaogang

Feng Xiaogang’s 2004 New Year’s celebration film Cell Phone (手机, 2003), which received multiple awards and was a box-office hit, is a black comedy that engenders more than just laughter and tears (fig. 1). The film’s sarcastic tone left a chill that had unpleasant repercussions in the real world. For one, insecure wives started checking their husbands’ cell phone records to see if they were having affairs like the film’s protagonist Yan Shouyi 严守一. And Cui Yongyuan 崔永元, the host of the CCTV program Straight Talk (实话实说) and a likely real-life model for Yan Shouyi, was upset with the film’s portrayal of the entertainment world, which so resembles his own, and concerned that it could blemish his reputation.[ 1 ] One of Cui’s criticisms centered on the film’s “inappropriate” depiction of the decadent underbelly of television news circles. In other words, in Cui’s eyes, film and television are distinctive media with different functions and cultures, and what might be expected in film circles—promiscuity, for example—could be totally out of place in television news circles. For Cui, Feng Xiaogang should not have stigmatized the TV realm in the way he did. Such an (over)reactive criticism, needless to say, only served to boost the film’s box office appeal and further intensify an already tense entertainment sensation. But the sensation surrounding the film also raises important questions regarding media, art, entertainment, reality, and social relations. Cell Phone invites discussions about the differences and interactions between film and television, in terms of genre, media, and the different cultures and influences associated with them.

Television Series poster for Cell Phone

Fig. 2: The TV series Cell Phone (2010), directed by Shen Yan

In 2010, seven years after the appearance of the film, Cell Phone was adapted into a TV drama, a multifaceted production that both deconstructs and deepens the themes in the original film (fig. 2). With an all-star cast, led by Wang Zhiwen 王志文 and Chen Daoming 陈道明—two of the most successful actors in China, who created the so called “combination of Wang-Dao” (王道, pun on “the kingly way”), playing Yan Shouyi and Fei Mo 费墨, respectively, the TV series immediately seized the attention of vast audiences. However, as might be expected, the series avoids the sardonic and comedic tone of the film, modifies the images of the leading characters, and highlights their redeeming qualities. Unlike the film, with its satiric style, the TV series is a self-reflexive account of TV production and reception, an account that also shows the interaction among different communications media in general. Rather than a fast-paced, melodramatic tale of desire, deceit, and betrayal, of love expired, domestic conflict intensified and resolved, the TV series offers a rather slow, sober, intellectualized reflection on the transformation of television and society in China. To some extent, the TV series Cell Phone can be regarded as meta-television commentary on contemporary Chinese TV and other mass media. Whereas the film presents a type of cinematic aesthetics that exaggerates the violence of individual desire and technology, the TV series has a televisual aesthetic that emphasizes the violence of capital structuring the field of mass communication. Whereas the film delivers a more playful picture that lacks a clear moral framework, the TV series restores the more didactic and stabilizing function of the mass media, reassuring rather than unsettling the mainstream audience by developing more positive images of the protagonists.

A comparative reading of the film and the TV series—with a focus first on the temporal and spatial structure of the two representations, then on the ideological function of the two media and different genres of television—addresses the self-reflexivity of contemporary Chinese media. Whereas the film sets up a dichotomy between rural and urban, between past and present, between ideal and reality, and presents a nostalgia for the past in the countryside, the TV series deconstructs that dichotomy and offers a more in-depth account of the postsocialist ethos that results from temporal-spatial displacement. The TV series’ extended depictions of minor characters who flood into Beijing looking for jobs, while not without comic effect, suggest that everyone, not just Yan Shouyi, is a wandering soul in this fast-changing, materialist modern city. Moreover, the interaction among different media—film, television, telephone networks, publishing houses, and the Internet—and between different TV genres—live talk show and serial drama, etc., suggests a self-reflexive narrative about their respective impact on human relations. Borrowing from Foucauldian theories of the panopticon and subjectivation, I argue that even more than political institutions, the seemingly “transparent” mass media in effect tie an individual to the network of power, desire, and disinformation, and therefore construct the self as a split and lacking the ability of effective communication. Meanwhile, the simultaneous concealing and revealing of the production of information in the TV series manifest the ambiguous function of television in portraying social reality and forging identity. Taken together, the film and the TV series display a self-reflexivity that reveals much about media in China today.

The Film:
From the Self-sacrificing Subject to the Desiring Subject

In her book Desiring China, Lisa Rofel (2007: 111) observes that in the thirty years following the death of Mao, a postsocialist ethos emerged characterized by a transformation of the Chinese people from self-sacrificing subjects to desiring subjects. To be sure, in the Mao era, morality was embodied in the selflessness of war heroes, such as Dong Cunrui 董存瑞, or proletarian soldiers, such as Lei Feng 雷锋. “Serving the nation” or “serving the people” was the central social discourse, pervading both public and private realms. In fact, this public discourse encompassed and organized private space and shaped the individual subject. According to the official discourse, the individual was just one of the standardized “screws” in the huge socialist machine. Individual characteristics were erased in the name of a homogeneous collective. Moreover, according to this discourse, self-sacrifice would push the machine forward on the path toward Communism and benefit the individual, so long as s/he was part of the machine. Insofar as the public interest embraced the private interest, there was no space left for individual desire, which stood as the opposite of self-sacrifice. As a result, individual difference was erased, and private communication became public.

In the postsocialist period, however, marketization and commercialization openly stimulated individual desires. As Xueping Zhong (2010: 15) points out, the Chinese industrial modernization imaginary is interlocked with a commercial one, characterized as “a commodity-worship-and-materialism-oriented modernization imaginary and discourse.” Hence, homogeneity has given way to heterogeneity, collectivity has given rise to individuality, and public discourse has facilitated private desires. Desires for high-end commodities, for individual freedom, love, sex, power, fame, privacy, etc., are not only legitimated, but also promoted in the media. And a clearer boundary has been drawn between the public and private realms. During this ambiguous transitional period, communication becomes a double-speak: at once revealing and concealing information.

A young Yan Shouyi on the phone

Fig. 3: Young Yan Shouyi takes Lü Guihua to town to call her husband

It is in this context that the movie Cell Phone sets up a dichotomy between past and present, and between public and private, to show the transformation of the subject in the postsocialist period. The movie opens with a flashback to Yan Shouyi’s first phone call during the heyday of the Maoist revolutionary period—the year 1969. The thirteen-year-old boy takes the beautiful bride Lü Guihua 吕桂花 on a bicycle ride to town to call her newly-wed husband Niu Sanjin 牛三斤, who works in a mine in another region, to ask him whether he will come back home soon (fig. 3). The contents of this private call, which is made by Yan Shouyi on Lü Guihua’s behalf, are broadcast on a loud speaker to the entire mine community. The words of the phone call are then heard in a deigetic song that fades out as a voiceover narrator introduces the adult Yan Shouyi—now a famous TV talk show anchor in Beijing. This opening nostalgically glorifies the simplicity and transparency of communication in the Mao era when even primitive communications technology could draw close people who were physically apart. In Yan Shouyi’s memory, what would now be criticized as the suppression of privacy is idealized as promoting pure and sincere emotions that are innocently shared with the public. Inasmuch as Lü Guihua cannot convey anything inappropriate to the ears of the public, we are not sure whether to take her phone call literally or metaphorically, and the beauty lies in this ambiguity—still, her simple question is the direct expression of a young wife’s yearning. All the coal miners share her husband’s joy, and it does not matter whether it is a private or public communication, because the underlying message is that there is nothing that cannot be communicated and nothing to hide.

Against this backdrop, we are told that thirty years later, the adult Yan Shouyi tries his very best to maintain privacy and to separate his personal life from his public image. As the host of the talk show Tell It Like It Is (有一说一), he is a symbol of truth-telling in the media and boasts of being a champion in promoting transparency and accuracy. Yet in real life, Yan is an inveterate liar who keeps secrets from the three women around him. His life is full of illicit passion, uncontrollable deceits, and pleasurable guilt. He is driven by a desire to keep a stable and routine life with his wife Yu Wenjuan 于文娟, and at the same time to maintain a guilty yet intense sexual relationship with Wu Yue 武月. After Wenjuan leaves him upon learning of his infidelity, he pursues a new love interest, Shen Xue 沈雪, and tries to build a similarly simple and comfortable family without ever breaking up with Wu Yue. This clichéd male fantasy—to have both a virtuous wife and a beautiful mistress, both familial stability and dangerous seduction—was suppressed in the Mao era yet reemerged in the postsocialist era. It is dramatically played out in the film as the seemingly skillful yet in fact clumsy liar Yan Shoyi finds himself trapped in the many lies he tells his women. Moreover, his inflated desire for more personal space transgresses the women’s sense of territory and in turn arouses their desire for self-defense or control. Indeed, all the characters in the film are desiring subjects, obsessed with keeping secrets or finding out secrets. While the male characters—Yan Shouyi and Fei Mo—break the marital contract in seeking pleasure and fulfillment outside marriage, the female characters—Yu Wenjuan, Shen Xue, and Li Yan—are active defenders of their relationships with their men, desiring to detect their men’s secrets and to control their behavior.

Yan Shouyi making a secret phone call in the bathroom

Fig. 4: Yan Shouyi makes a phone call to Wu Yue in the bathroom

This gender and family dynamic is dramatized through the use of the cell phone. A symbol of network technology and a tool of communication, the cell phone is designed to expedite communication and bring people closer, yet it functions in the film as a channel through which to convey lies and as a network to trace desires. It records one’s secrets, making it impossible to hide one’s desires (fig. 4). Yan Shouyi’s peasant brother Brick buys a used cell phone in order to facilitate communication between Yan and his grandma in the countryside, yet one of Brick’s calls only helps Yu Wenjuan to discover Yan’s extra-marital affair. At the same time, cell phones help the wives discover their husbands’ secrets and give them a sense of power and control (fig. 5). By the end of the film, Li Yan and Shen Xue check the calling log in both Fei Mo’s and Yan Shouyi’s cell phones. The technology has facilitated their desire to control, yet at the same time revealed their insecurity and distrust in this desire-driven society. Like Yan Shouyi and Fei Mo, Shen Xue and Li Yan are caught in their own desires. In contrast to Lü Guihua, who sacrifices her individual “Self” (to send her husband away) and her privacy (to send a public message to her husband), Shen Xue and Li Yan’s desire to defend “Self” and rights ironically leads to the invasion of other’s privacy and the loss of “Self.” Their lives are now dominated by the men’s secrets, and all of their hide-and-seek games are captured by technology. The ID information both women leave at the phone record-checking center is evidence of their desire for control. In this regard, the privacy-seeking men and control-obsessed women all manifest the split “Self” forever trapped in one’s own unfulfilled desire and by the control of technology.

Shen Xue catches Yan Shouyi on the phone in the bathroom

Fig. 5: Shen Xue catches Yan Shouyi’s secret call in the bathroom

To be sure, Wu Yue seems to be an ultimate transgressor who sets things in motion, yet she too is possessed by her desires. She wants to have it all—passion, love, security, and fame—at the expense of others’ welfares. In the end, though she replaces Yan Shouyi at his job, she pays a high price for it: the film suggests that she has to offer her body in exchange for this reward. Even this most ambitious and lustful woman has to submit to other’s desire. In this sense, Wu Yue is no less a pitiful figure than any other character in the film: she uses her cell phone to record herself making love with Yan Shouyi in order to blackmail him, yet with this scheme she enters into a network of power and exchange over which she has no control.

Yan Shouyi in horror

Fig. 6: The camera in the cell phone captures Yan Shouyi’s expression of horror

The film ends with Yan Shouyi sitting alone at home, having lost his job, his beloved grandma, and all three lovers. When Lü Guihua’s daughter Niu Caiyun 牛彩云 shows him a new cell phone that she wants him to endorse for her company, the GPS in the phone immediately locates his position and the camera captures Yan Shouyi’s facial expression of horror (fig. 6). Then the camera zooms into his eyes, presenting Yan Shouyi’s mental image of a bird’s-eye view of his Beijing apartment, and the sentimental song about Lü Guihua’s phone call from the beginning of the film can be heard, suggesting the contrast between the past and the present, between the countryside and the city, and between freedom and control.

The irony of the film is that in postsocialist China individuals are even more tightly controlled (now by the web of technology and desire) than they were in the Maoist past, when the erasure of self led, the film suggests, to simplicity, transparency, and a harmonious community. This reminds one of Foucault’s notion of panopticon and its function on subject formation (Foucault 1995: 200-201). However, instead of political institutions shaping individuals through discipline and punishment, it is technology and unbound desires that entrap individuals and construct them as split subjects. Neither technology nor desire comes with a clear moral or ideological framework, the lack of which makes the entrapment an even more universal and inescapable human condition for individuals. In other words, in an era when disciplining one’s desires and impulses is impossible and technology is a double-edged sword that both facilitates impulses and tracks desires, the simplicity and transparency of a time of tighter political control becomes desirable.

At a recent conference, Ackbar Abbas playfully commented that because it dramatizes the illicit “intercourse” between men and women and suggests a new social discourse that interacts with the revolutionary discourse, Cell Phone manifests an “inter-discourse” in the post-socialist society.[ 2 ] Lighthearted as it sounds, the wordplay of “intercourse” and “discourse” nonetheless reveals something of the ethos of contemporary Chinese society: the past becomes an ideal counterpart for the present. People are nostalgic about everything: the 1930s and 1940s, the revolutionary past, the Cultural Revolution, even the 1980s, when intellectuals assumed a more active role in the cultural realm, all become more desirable mirror images of the present because of the uncertain transformation in contemporary society. In this film, the imagined past and the countryside, like a still shot inscribed in one’s memory, serve as the placeholder of morality and the eternal homeland for the wandering souls in the modern city.

The TV Series:
Compression of Space and Time—Wandering Souls in Beijing

Lü Guigua speaking into microphone on stage

Fig. 7: Middle-aged Lü Guihua denies making her celebrated call thirty year before

More than just a drama revolving entirely around issues of intimate relationships, the TV series also emphasizes the social environment in which the subject is situated, stressing the discovery of the individual “Self” and, as an extension, the discovery of mass media. The plot of the TV series centers on Yan Shouyi’s midlife crisis—both the tension at home with his wife Yu Wenjuan and also the increasing pressure at work to meet the demands of viewer ratings. The career dimension of his crisis reflects the transformation of the TV industry and the challenges it faces in the process of marketization. Rather than a medium that simply transmits information to a homogenous, passive audience who are easy to please as in the past, television has to appeal to a more heterogeneous and active audience who is increasingly selective in their choice of programs (Zhang 1999: 101-116). The crisis that both the protagonist and the media undergo sets the defensive and reactive tone of the TV series from the beginning, and the disoriented subject constantly imagines the past and the countryside as a source of emotional comfort. Unlike in the film, in which the past and the present, the countryside and the city are contrasting realities for the protagonist, the TV series mixes the past with the present and the rural with the urban. When Lü Guihua on the TV talk show Tell It Like It Is denies having made her celebrated phone call thirty years before, or when Yan Shouyi’s childhood friend Xiao Zhu forgets about their first letter to each other, the past, one that has been so important for Yan Shouyi’s individual growth, is now impossible to reconstruct (fig. 7). It is at best part of a lasting present in Yan’s imagination, a site that warms the heart of the displaced subject.

Lu Zhixin

Fig. 8: Lu Zhixin performs in a funeral

Moreover, the TV series develops a parallel story line set in the countryside so as to appeal to the mass audience. The rural space is no longer the placeholder for an idealized past, but rather a field for the changing present as well. Country folk are also engaged in keeping up with the pace of urbanization and commercialization. Thanks to marketization and improved social mobility, Lu Zhixin, a neighbor of Brick’s in the countryside known for his loud voice, earns significant profit for his “performance” at funeral rituals (fig. 8). Yu Wenhai, who is Yu Wenjuan’s younger brother and Yan Shouyi’s brother-in-law, together with Brick and Lü Guihua, eventually succeed in Beijing with a restaurant named after Yan Shouyi’s TV talk showTell It Like It Is (fig. 9). Unemployed, drifting young people such as Niu Caiyun and Liu Baigang also find their place in Beijing. Commercialization and urbanization prove to be positive in transforming ordinary folk’s lives, if at the expense of a population explosion and residential overcrowding.

In these parallel story lines, there is an antithetical movement among the characters: Yan Shouyi’s spiritual movement from the city to the countryside, and his hometown fellows’ physical movement from the countryside to the city. These complementary opposites lay bare the fundamental tension that drives the plot; not surprisingly, the TV series places Yan Shouyi at the center of this intensified swirl. His confusion and disorientation, thus, reflect both the uncertainty for an individual subject and the challenge the media faces in this social transition.

Brick (left) and Yu Wenhai (right)

Fig. 9: Yu Wenhai (right) and Brick (left) look for business opportunity in Beijing

Indeed, the TV series dilutes the theme of unbounded individual desire and focuses more on the larger social landscape, especially on the function of mass media. Morality is restored in the sense that fidelity still dominates the characters’ attitude toward life, and they refuse to betray moral principles in any serious way. In terms of private life, the TV series emphasizes family values and social stability. Yan Shouyi never has sex with Wu Yue, and Fei Mo never hits on his graduate student Liu Dan; Wu Yue and Liu Dan are just tests for the successful men’s integrity and for their wives’ trust. Both men pass the test, whereas the women associated with them fail to demonstrate their trust. In this sense, the TV series portrays more “repressed subjects” than “desiring subjects.” Yan Shouyi feels desire for Wu Yue but suppresses it in order not to hurt his wife; and Yu Wenjuan divorces Yan Shouyi not to punish him but to give him freedom. Similarly, Shen Xue leaves Yan Shouyi not out of desire to control him but to reunite Yan Shouyi with Yu Wenjuan and their newborn son. Characters give up their desires to ensure their beloved’s happiness. Nevertheless, this “repressed subject” is different from the “sacrificing subject” of the Mao era i n that the “self” is articulated loud and clear: withholding desire is a painful struggle.

Family values are most exaggerated in the drama of Lü Guihua’s marriage. Lü Guihua has always wanted to divorce Niu Sanjin in order to pursue a new life, yet the local government refuses to grant their divorce because of the mythical phone call she made thirty years before, now a popular story broadcast on TV. Yet in the end, when Niu Sanjin agrees to divorce her after he has a stroke, Lü Guihua changes her mind, deciding to stay in the marriage to care for him. The return of personal sacrifice and the restoration of family values, on the one hand, mark the TV series’ appeal to a popular audience and mainstream morality; on the other hand, they also intensify the characters’ psychological conflicts between desire and responsibility, control and love, and self and family.

In the realm of public life, Yan Shouyi also appears to be a “repressed subject.” In order to maintain the distinctive intellectual style of the talk show and at the same time survive in the increasingly harsh competitive world of commercialized TV, he has to balance different power groups without completely submitting to the pull of viewer ratings. He artfully promotes the pretentious intellectual Fei Mo to maintain the quality of the program and at the same time compliments the new boss to curry his support. The careful, Tai-chi style of dealing with people sometimes backfires so much so that he has to compromise his dignity to please other people. The pressure from both work and home nearly suffocates Yan Shouyi; his wife’s distrust, friend’s betrayal, and boss’s demands smother and overwhelm him. More than once, Yan sadly comments on the stifling condition of Beijing—the crowded buildings and overpopulation have made the city a suffocating place in which people are physically close yet so emotionally distant. Images of high-rise buildings and multi-layered highways signify the time and the speed of the modern city; the cell phone network, meanwhile, leaves no place for people to hide and to rest. In contrast, the countryside appears to be the eternal spiritual homeland. Yet unlike the spatially- and temporally-distant countryside in the film, the countryside in the TV series is an ever-present spiritual space where exhausted subjects get rejuvenated. Yan Shouyi longs for the countryside where the land is wide and the day is long, where darkness arises from the earth instead of falling from sky, where people have space to think and communicate genuine feelings, where people can be far away yet feel so close to each other. By contrast, in the city time and space are compressed, and the individual feels not only trapped and suffocated, but also harried by speed of modern life and its constant changes in job requirements, intimate relationships, and social discourse (fig. 10).

Fei Mo (left) and Yan Shouyi (right)

Fig. 10: Yan Shouyi (right) expresses his frustrations to Fei Mo (left)

Though not as repulsive as the Yan Shouyi in the film, the Yan Shouyi in the TV series is, to be sure, far from an innocent or completely righteous man. The city has transformed him from a quiet country boy to a quick-witted social celebrity. Over the years, he has learned to flatter all kinds of men in power and keep a store of lies up his sleeves. He develops a persona that charms his audiences with the promise of “telling it like it is,” yet in his off-stage life, he finds himself always telling lies. However, the TV series highlights Yan’s awareness of his own alienation, drawing attention to his internal struggle to seek a genuine “Self.” Specifically, the countryside serves as a nurturing root to reinvigorate his determination to be himself. This root is embodied in the character of the aged grandma. Grandma is a mother-figure for Yan Shouyi and a symbol of morality and wisdom. Her words to Yan Shouyi have been his moral compass and shaped his work ethic. It is Grandma who teaches Yan Shouyi three fundamental rules: do not be lazy, do not take advantage of things unjustifiably, and do not tell lies. Yan’s strong attachment to Grandma signifies his eternal desire to comply with the moral rules she embodies (fig. 11). Yan Shouyi admits to himself that he has been successful in obeying all but Grandma’s third rule. Yet after Grandma dies, having attended her funeral in the countryside, Yan Shouyi decides to tell the truth about a dirty deal in a TV hostess competition in which Wu Yue should be the winner.

Fei Mo (left), grandma (middle), and Yan Shouyi (right) seated and laughing

Fig. 11: Yan Shouyi and Fei Mo enjoy a conversation with Grandma

Risking his own reputation and job, he courageously exposes the truth behind the convoluted story. It is Grandma and the countryside that redeem Yan Shouyi, offering him moral direction out of his chaotic predicament. In fact, the countryside has a redeeming quality for Fei Mo as well. Just as the Yan Shouyi in the beginning wavers under the temptation of his own desires, Fei Mo later finds himself betraying his best friend and his own beliefs, selling popular lectures for fame and money. Only after Yan Shouyi stands up for the truth does Fei Mo recover his own sense of “Self.” When the boss at the TV station asks Fei Mo, now a well-known scholar on TV lecture programs, to continue working on the talk show Tell It Like It Is, Fei Mo refuses the generous offer and declares his determination to return to academic life. When the TV station becomes a commercial site dictated by viewer ratings and full of corruption, both men choose to leave to maintain their peace of mind.

Tell It Like It Is:
The Irony of Communication and Self-reflexivity of Mass Media

In many ways, the TV series Cell Phone is a self-reflexive depiction of the television world. Like Feng Xiaogang’s early films, such as Party A, Party B (甲方乙方, 1997), Be There or Be Square (不见不散, 1998), and Big Shot’s Funeral (大腕儿, 2001), which reveal “a strong metacinematic tendency and an aesthetic of irony” (McGrath 2005: 90-132), the TV series Cell Phone has a meta-televisual quality characterized by reflection on the TV industry during the intensification of the market economy. Viewers quickly caught on to this, pointing out events in the TV series that parallel circumstances in reality: the hostess competition for the talk show Tell It Like It Is, in which Wu Yue is a finalist, resembles TV programs such asSuper Girl (超女) or Happy Boy (快男) reminding one of the unpleasant scandals in those competitions; Fei Mo’s Lecture program Big Shots Talk to the Masses (大家讲给大家听) mirrors TV programs such as Forum of a Hundred Scholars (百家讲坛), which has produced several intellectual media stars including Yi Zhongtian 易中天 and Yu Dan 于丹.[ 3 ] Moreover, the TV series also provides a cross-media account of the production and consumption of art, knowledge, entertainment, and truth that are intrinsic in mass communication. One most obvious and comedic example is Niu Caiyun’s unexpected success on the Internet. Despite the doubts of family and friends, the slightly narcissistic and naive Niu Caiyun joins the hostess competition for Tell It Like It Is, only to become a laughingstock. However, she soon finds herself gaining popularity on the Internet, alluding to the self-made Internet star Sister Lotus (芙蓉姐姐) (fig. 12). [ 4 ] The appearance of the Internet, together with other media, suggests that various media have been woven together to create an organic whole to tackle the question of communications media.

Niu Caiyun in dramatic pose

Fig. 12: Niu Caiyun joins the hostess competition for the talk show Tell It Like It Is

Needless to say, on the most fundamental level, Cell Phone, both the film and the TV series, engages the issue of communication. The topic of (mis)communication has long been on the mind of popular writer Liu Zhenyun 刘震云, who wrote the screenplay for the film and the novel from which the screenplay was adapted, and later served as the consultant for the scriptwriter who adapted his novel for the TV series. His recent novels Full of Nonsense (一腔废话, 2002), Cell Phone (2003, published at the same time as the release of the film), and One Sentence Counts as Ten Thousand Sentences (一句顶一万句, 2009) all revolve around the issue of communication. The title of Fei Mo’s book, Talk (说话), identifies speaking as a basic mode of communication (fig. 13). The cell phone, symbol of network technology, at once facilitates and disturbs this mode of communication. In other words, speaking, writing, technology, media are all included in this TV drama to explore the problem of (mis)communication. Indeed, in the TV series, publishing houses, the film industry, newspapers, entertainment magazines, and the Internet are all involved to show the absurd yet seemingly logical marriage between high culture and commercial culture, between real news and fake news, and between truth and lies. Beneath the seemingly objective and transparent image of mass media, there are holes, cracks, and ugly deals that betray the audience’s trust.

Fei Mo (left) and Yan Shouyi (right) seated on stage

Fig. 13: Yan Shouyi and Fei Mo on the TV stage

The problem of (mis)communication and trust might remind one of Georges Feydeau’s farces in the late 1890s in France. Critics have observed that Feydeau’s farces seem designed to destroy order, rationality, and established pieties, and his treatment of marital deceit and discord sharply subvert family life. Moreover, behind the complex plots and unstoppable series of mishaps that reveal the hypocrisy of human behavior and threaten the middle class order, there are always language problems and difficulties of communication at work (Hill 1992: 61). It is not hard to see the resemblance here; miscommunication is still and will always be the source for drama, implying a universal human condition that entraps individuals and that fascinates writers and directors. However, what separates both versions of Cell Phone from Feydeau’s farces is the former’s emphasis on modern technology, the new tools of communication, and the differences among the new modern media.

In a sense, the TV series presents an inter-textual dialogue with the film, suggesting different ideological and aesthetic emphases. Scholars distinguish between the different media of television and film. Both are modern mass media, but film has often been seen in terms of being the product of an auteur, an approach that stresses the aesthetic dimensions of the film. Since cinema studies is mostly concerned with the one “modality of cinema”—theatrical feature films shown in movie theaters—film is usually appreciated for its fictionality and artistic value (Allen/Hill 2004: 164). Television, by contrast, is more readily associated with mass audiences, and a number of TV genres appeal to these audiences by their “realseemingness” and “liveness” (Allen/Hill 2004: 165). Even though most TV programs are not broadcast “live,” and the golden age of live broadcasting (the 1950s in the US and Western Europe) is long gone, the specific “language” of television, as Jerome Bourdon (2004: 182) suggests, still lies in the possibility, not always accomplished, of live broadcasting. Early television theories often defined the specificities of television, compared to cinema, with three characteristics: screen size, domestic reception, and “liveness.” For some critics, it is its “liveness” that fundamentally separates television from film; television has been “exalted as a way to conquer time and distance, to have vast groups of people commune in the new experience” (Bourdon 2004: 183). This assumption of “liveness” or “realseemingness,” Bourdon argues, remains today a fundamental part of television viewers’ expectations.

Moreover, while film demonstrates a high degree of standardization and similarity among different genres, television is characterized by generic diversity. As Robert Allen and Annette Hill describe it, “regardless of the film’s title, director, stars, or the movie theater in which it would be shown, audiences came to expect all Hollywood films to share certain basic traits: they would all be of roughly the same length; they would all be fictional; and they would all be narratives whose plots would be brought to closure by the time the film itself came to an end” (Allen/Hill 2004: 164). Each film is thus a specific variation of a general generic pattern. By contrast, television programs diverge significantly among genres: talk shows, TV dramas, and children’s cartoons have very little in common in terms of their structures, effects, and audiences. While film genres mobilize the interests of particular audience segments—for instance, melodramas were designed to appeal especially to women and westerns to men—television programming tends to address the presumed interests of discrete audience groups and tie them to the same schedule. Television broadcasting encourages regular, habitual viewing, asking the audience to tune in “the same time tomorrow” or “the same time next week.” As Allen and Hill (2004: 165) put it, “television genres take advantage of the ‘always thereness’ of television and its insinuation into the daily and weekly cycles of everyday life.”

As a result, television plays a more active role than film in representing social reality and constructing identities. Owing to its technological capacity for “realseemingness” and its function in forming viewing habits, television “exploits our quintessentially modern reliance upon experts to guide us in the unending process of ‘discovering’ who we are and of setting and adjusting norms, assigning values, and forming systems of belief” (Allen/Hill 2004: 370). In John Hartley’s (2004: 524-533) words, television serves a “teaching function” that is related to its power as a means of social representation and to the reflexive project of identity construction.

In light of these observations, the most significant difference between film and television in the Chinese context would appear to be that, whereas film can be full of ideological contradictions and cultural complexities, television is primarily concerned with the consolidation of mainstream morality and ethics (Yin/Yang 2005: 343). With regard to Cell Phone, the film and the TV series embody these differences: whereas the film adopts a cynical tone that lacks a clear moral framework and exposes the alienation of individual subjects, the TV series restores family morals and values, family lineage and community, and the promise of social stability. In the TV series, virtue and responsibility weigh heavily on the characters. Yu Wenjuan’s virtue as a faithful wife determined to have a child to continue her husband’s family line not only earns Grandma’s affection, but also touches the audience’s heart. Online reviewers took her as a model woman to marry.[ 5 ] On the other hand, Yan Shouyi’s suppression of his desire for Wu Yue and his righteous support of her, despite being blackmailed by a powerful sponsor who favors another candidate during the hostess competition, transform him into a responsible man deserving love and respect. In fact, it is this sense of responsibility that redeems Yan Shouyi. Moreover, the appearance of the child, product of Yu Wenjuan’s resilience and Yan Shouyi’s sense of responsibility, suggests the continuation not only of the family lineage, but also of the values of “honesty” embodied on the child’s name “Shi” 实—sincerity—which was given to the son by Grandma. In the end, when Shen Xue decides to leave Yan Shouyi, she confesses to Li Yan that she can compete with Yu Wenjuan, but not with the son. This not only rearticulates the traditional value of a male heir in a family, but also implies the importance of family to social stability. The inter-textual reading between the film and the TV series, thus, reveals the ideological assumptions of the two media as well as their respective functions in society.

Without a comparison with the film, however, the didactic function of the TV series would remain latent, and the program would appear as yet another mass-consumed melodrama. The covert ideological function of the TV series leads to another self-reflexive dialogue between different genres of television programs. Scholars have found in television programs two seemingly contradictory representational strategies with regard to the production process: one strategy is to hide the production process as much as possible; the other is to show it off (Allen/Hill 2004: 269). While in some “live” broadcasting programs, producers like to show the production “secrets” to the audience—the technological apparatus, the crew working on the site, and even flubbed lines of dialogue—to create an effect that critics call “stylistic exhibitionism,” some programs, such as serial dramas, purposefully hide the production process in order to transmit a “transparent” or “realistic” effect on the audience. In this light, the TV series both exposes the production process—the performative “stylistic exhibitionism” that displays the interaction between the anchor and the audience and the entire process of how the talk show is designed and executed—showing the artificial constructiveness of the “live program,” and conceals the production process of the series itself. It presents a seemingly realistic fictional world, sutures the audience emotionally and intellectually, and seamlessly performs its ideological function. While the exposure of the production process of the talk show discloses the “secrets” of television in the market economy, the TV series as a whole takes a conservative moral stand and seeks to restore morality in the mass media. This dual revelation and concealment, hence, manifest television’s function in today’s commercial culture: it at once exposes the media to address audiences’ aversion to cultural corruption and curiosity about the production secrets in TV and reinforces its ideological function in promoting mainstream morality and social stability.

In this regard, the dialogues between different television genres and between film and television together create a more comprehensive account of the mass media. While different media and genres maintain their specific appeal, their interaction nonetheless gives rise to more self-reflexive demonstrations of mass communication. Not foreseeing the critical reception of the film Cell Phone from the television world, Feng Xiaogang insisted that the film only entertains and alerts the audience with a story about the use of cell phones.[ 6 ] Yet the TV series consciously adopts a self-reflexive perspective, expanding the story from an individual’s emotional turbulence to Chinese society’s uneasy transformation. In particular, as Liu Zhenyun comments, the TV series tells how China has turned from a morally-oriented, serious society to an entertainment-driven, commercial society.[ 7 ] Without the film, there would have been neither the novel nor the TV series. Taken together, the film and the TV series present the multifaceted crises in contemporary Chinese society and mass media.

Kun Qian
University of Richmond


[ 1 ] For reactions to the film, see the following online articles:;

[ 2 ] Ackbar Abbas, conference on “Space and Time in Chinese-Language Cinema,” UC Davis, November 5-6, 2010.

[ 3 ] Online source, Tengxun Yule,

[ 4 ] Online source, Tengxun Yule,; Zhongguo Taiwan wang,

[ 5 ] Online source, Tengxun yule, (accessed May 8, 2011); CRI Online,

[ 6 ] Feng Xiaogang Zishu (Feng Xiaogang’s self narrative). Online source: Baidu wenku,

[ 8 ] Liu Zhenyun commented that the TV series is a wonderful representation of the transformation of Chinese society. Refer to online source: Wenhua Zhongguo,


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