BEIJING — The hottest movie in China these days is "Cellphone," a dark comedy about a morally bankrupt TV talk show host who lies, cheats and schemes his way through life using his feature-laden cellphone.
Over the course of 140 minutes, the main character, Yan Shouyi, deletes text messages, switches off his phone, turns it to silent mode, and claims to be "in an important meeting" -- all in an effort to keep his wife, girlfriend and lover from finding out about one another.
The film's depiction of suspicion, deception and mobility have hit such a realistic chord with Chinese audiences that "Wo zai kaihui," or "I'm in a meeting," has become a running social joke.
As China lurches into the 21st century, few things capture its people's frantic search for meaning, prosperity and self-expression better than the cellphone. And the movie illustrates how the device has exposed the growing gap between the values of the closed, largely rural China of the past and the technology that represents the slick, increasingly urban nation of the future.
" 'Cellphone' Leads to Trust Crisis," blared a headline in the Beijing Daily Messenger.
"Blockbuster Stirs Mistrust Between Couples," screamed another headline on Xinhua Net.
Critics and viewers attribute the film's success to a thoughtful script and director Feng Xiaogang's eye for the everyday concerns of his Chinese audience.
"The movie says a lot about real life," said He Xiaole, 21, who works in a sports promotion company. "He captured a lot of things people really worry about."
Chinese movies until recently were restricted to "broad and socially uplifting" themes. In the early 1980s, the hit film "Long Live Youth" by director Huang Shuqin portrayed a model high school student leading her classmates on to a brighter future.
A decade later, "Jiao Yulu," by director Wang Jixing, delighted audiences with the tale of a local Communist Party secretary who poured his heart and soul into helping the nation, despite a serious illness.
This year, however, the buzz is about "Cellphone." The film explores several timely issues, including the new technology's impact on male-female relations, the growing acceptance of extramarital affairs and the loss of traditional values in China's headlong race for material success.
Think of a slightly darker version of "You've Got Mail," which in the 1990s explored the Internet's impact on relationships. "Cellphone" has elbowed aside "Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets," "Finding Nemo" and "The Matrix Revolutions" to top China's film charts.
The inspiration for "Cellphone" came during a brainstorming session, Feng said in an interview in his Beijing penthouse office, crowded with producers, scriptwriters, assistants and a well-used pool table. As so often happens, the brainstorming session was interrupted repeatedly by ringing cellphones, prompting a "eureka" moment.
"It was in everyone's eyes, but under no one's pen," Feng said.
The movie's opening scene shows rural villagers waiting in line to use the town's lone public phone, guarded under lock and key by an attendant. That was during the Cultural Revolution. The movie fast-forwards 30 years to a wife answering her husband's forgotten cellphone in their living room and hearing another woman's voice.
Today, China is saturated with cellphones. With 280 million registered users and growing, roughly twice the U.S. number, the country's cellphone revolution has embraced the needs of a new generation -- from migrant workers to corporate executives.
At the high end, features-laden models costing upward of $1,000 provide a tangible way to say, "I've made it." More utilitarian offerings represent a tool well suited to China's increasingly changing relationships.
As the movie illustrates, cellphones are helping to transform romantic relationships. In a society where public displays of affection are a relatively new phenomenon, China's lovers have embraced SMS, or short message service. Text messages allow people to express their feelings without fear of being openly rejected or embarrassed, said Craig Watts, general manager with Beijing-based Norson, a technology consulting firm.
"The sexual and mobile revolution go hand in hand," Watts said. "Cellphones combine the anonymity of the Internet with complete portability."
The film's main character, Yan, played by well-known actor Ge You, is the host of a talk show called "To Tell the Truth" -- while telling anything but the truth in his private life.
"After we learn to speak, it becomes easier to lie," Yan says during a reflective moment. "All you have to do is move your lips."
During one scene, Yan rejects an incoming call from his lover while he gets a foot massage with his girlfriend. In another scene, he tells his girlfriend that he's in a meeting when he's really with his ex-wife after she gave birth to their child. Later, the dejected girlfriend confronts Yan with an incriminating picture -- with his lover -- sent electronically on his cellphone.