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The case of Cell Phone

Both the film and TV series Cell Phone exemplify a trend in screen entertainment throughout the BRICS that exhibit great anxiety over new communications technologies. Television and the mobile phone, and increasingly the Internet, are portrayed in BRICS films not only in a positive manner but also as presenting threats and anxieties (Laukkanen, 2017: 730-733). New technologies in these representations do not connect people, rather they are a source of mistakes, worry and conflict, as the films Company (2002) and On a Wednesday (2008) from India or Elite Squad 2 (2010) from Brazil, demonstrate, to mention a few. In China, even Fifth Generation directors like Chen Kaige, have taken on the challenges of new technologies. His Caught in the Web (the Chinese title meaning Flesh Search, 2012) is based on a real-life event in which a Beijing resident was shamed on-line after a cell-phone video recorded on a bus with her behaving rudely spread on the Internet.

The Cell Phone TV series focuses on changes and transformations in the television and other media industries in post-reform China. Set in Beijing and Henan province, with a range of storylines and scenes, Cell Phone illustrates the rise of media as a social, cultural and historical force in the stories of its characters - a process that reflects, inter alia, the concept of mediatization (see Adolf, 2011: 358-360). Typical of this process is that relationships between people become increasingly mediated and that the media affect both society and culture through many practices and vice versa, and social and cultural transformations in turn affect media and its logic. The series draws attention to media competition, fan and celebrity culture, journalistic ethics and the influence of social media, especially on the youth.

At the centre of Cell Phone are the two male protagonists presenting their seemingly oppressive relationship with the media profession, including their experience of‘phone slavery’, and the control of their wives. The narrative often revolves around the male protagonists’ efforts to negotiate their social and intellectual roles and territories. In her analysis of male images in contemporary television drama in China, Geng Song argues that the representations of masculinity are becoming increasingly hybrid and that the male imagery, a product of social change, is tied to new formations of power (Song, 2010: 426).This challenges the idea of hegemonic masculinity. However, hybrid masculinity ‘unites various and diverse practices in order to construct the best possible strategy for the reproduction of patriarchy’ (Demetriou, 2001: 337; Song, 2010: 405). In Cell Phone, the male bond between the two leading protagonists and the strain it is put under is used to question the current, market-oriented media culture that pushes the traditional media elite far away from the ideals of high culture and responsible journalism and sometimes towards different forms of cynicism (see Zhong, 2010: 91—93).

This criticism can be understood from the perspectives of tradition and history: Confucian philosophy has traditionally directed high expectations towards the educated classes who are firmly established at the upper echelons of a hierarchical social order, whereas Maoism, instead, has promoted the media’s role as a unique bridge between those who are elected to power and the ordinary people, the Party being the vanguard of the proletariat. Although the Confucian stance obviously points to a bygone China (even though many argue that Confucian traditions suiting the needs of the ruling elite are being resuscitated) such didactic, hierarchical and informational characteristics have been associated with the preliberalization media in all the BRICS nations in one way or another.

The deterritorialization of culture, accompanied by other developments, such as women and sexual minorities demanding their rights, threatens conservative cultural values and patriarchy as described above in Cell Phone. This renegotiation of the man’s role, not only of the intellectual but also particularly the blue-collar male often depicted in crisis, is evident on BRICS screens. For example, Andrei Zvygiantsev’s high-profile film Leviathan serves as a good example of a drama about the plight of the common man in Russia, whereas the nationalist blockbusters produced in Russia and their heroic figures could be seen as conservative reactions to the changing expectations of masculinity.

Both the Cell Phone novel and film place great emphasis on the charm of the ‘the other woman’ or ‘the third partner’. In Chinese audio-visual culture, these figures have also become symptomatic of male desire and discontent as noted by Zhong (2007).The game between wives and their cheating husbands is also familiar to the Chinese audience. The series uses this contest as a metaphor for consumer society. Consumption is tied especially to femininity and the trade between wives and husbands. By showing wives spending money at shopping centres while their husbands compensate for their misconduct by offering them expensive lunches and gifts, the drama echoes the message of the 2004 megahit TV series Chinese-Style Divorce. This successful show, according to Xiao, demonstrated how commodities have become the tokens of love, which transforms interpersonal democracy based on egalitarian communication into a ‘democracy of consumption’ offering an illu-sionary equality through open access to the privilege of commodity consumption (Xiao, 2010: 748).This ‘engineering of souls for the market’ (Keane, 2001) makes it difficult to distinguish a market-oriented emotional subject from a rational bourgeois subject and political pragmatism in Cell Phone.

In Cell Phone, conflicts over sponsorship and corruption arise, which opens up a window of opportunity to leading character Fei Mo to have his own TV show, an offer he initially refuses. After the talk show,‘Tell It Like It Is’, hosted by Fei ends, he starts his own show, which is reminiscent of CCTV’s real, well-known Lecture Room (see Zhu, 2012: 153-168), consisting of public lectures on Chinese history and culture. Fei Mo is asked by the TV station to turn academic discussions of aesthetics into something entertaining and approachable for the television audience. He agrees to this and changes his lectures into stories about the four ancient beauties of China - the legends of four women distinguished for their appearance.

This kind of educational entertainment, to some extent, is regarded as degrading among academics; some scholars are accused of‘dumbing down’ the knowledge from their field to cater to the ‘vulgar taste’ of the public and Fei Mo faces this dilemma. However, as the star of his own programme, Fei Mo no longer feels that he is wasting his knowledge and intelligence.This is his pragmatic tactic to adjust to the new situation: he is simultaneously a man of the house and a man of the market. These sort of new hybrid men - good householders and cosmopolitan business people - are a new breed of character on BRICS screens, a good example being the cosmopolitan yet conservative NRI (non-resident Indian) characters of Hindi cinema family dramas, popular since the 1990s.

Nevertheless, an antipathy towards a strong market ideology can be seen in Cell Phone (Ahmed, 2010: 34-37). The media professionals, such as channel managers, who have adopted a business-oriented stance, exemplified by their jargon espousing Western-style managerial concepts and tabloid-style journalism, represent their own kind of alien group in the drama. However, while the media elite/intellectuals like Fei Mo are shown struggling to maintain their position in the rapidly commercializing media world under profit-extracting managers, the same changes may appear as possibilities for individualization among people who have so far had relatively little control over their own lives.

The drama highlights youth as inspired by the possibilities ofthe Internet: members of the digitally native generation yearning to achieve something more than their parents did. In the case of Cell Phone, this means dreaming of becoming a microblogger or even a TV celebrity. Exemplary here is the case of the girl from Henan province, Niu Canyun, whose slightly naive character is based on the ‘Sister Lotus’ case from the mid-2000s. A hotly debated figure on Chinese-language websites and an international phenomenon, Sister Lotus (pseudonym) came from a small town in provincial China, was turned down in university admissions but was able to become a celebrity by posting pictures of herself on the web. Sister Lotus was a harbinger to the rise of the diaosi, a now widespread phenomenon of the digital generation in which a common person net-streams her life to millions of followers who are also their sponsors, a sort of reality TV 2.0.

In contrast to middle-class city dwellers, the Internet, mobile phones and television certainly seem to offer the rural working class the opportunity to gain status and income, as well as new experiences and chances to explore and express their individuality. Cell Phone addresses this possibility, only suggestively, through the character of young Niu. Her successful blogging could be seen as offering empowerment; however, in the context of the story, it may also suggest the detrimental influence of popular culture.Yet the drama also makes it possible to interpret that the people are not mere victims. For example, blogging seems to provide young people with the chance to gain attention and a sense of belonging, for example, to certain value systems to which they aspire (Yuval-Davis, 2006: 199). At the same time, the drama portrays media as a fantasy machine representing the promise of a better life, especially for the rural working class and youth, who are looking to improve their living conditions. In the context of Cell Phone, people living in the countryside direct a good deal of positive affective energy towards the media in a socialist market economy and post-Maoist culture.

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