Han Sanping: Mao's Omega Watch Is Not Product Placement

The China Film Group chairman refers to the watch brand's appearance as 'prop design.'

HONG KONG -- The propaganda film Beginning of the Great Revival naturally is a prime advertising opportunity: It's a star-studded film that's overtaken movie screens in China, a coveted market with 1.3 billion people.

In one scene, the actor playing Communist China's founding father Mao Zedong accepts a gold Omega pocket watch from his girlfriend. The camera zooms in, making the Swiss luxury brand name visible to viewers.

It appears to be a glaring example of product placement - but the movie's director and star both denied it late Monday on the sidelines of the film's Hong Kong premiere.

"It is definitely not. It is a detail of our prop design," co-director Han Sanping said. Han, also the chairman of the influential state-owned studio China Film Group, co-directed the film with Huang Jianxin.

"There is not a single product placement in the entire movie. As for the watch, maybe the directors weren't really mindful of what brand it was," said Liu Ye, the Chinese actor who plays Mao. Liu added he wasn't sure if the gift-giving was historical fact and may have been artistic license.

Omega's press office did not respond to two emails seeking comment over the past week.

The Swiss watch maker has 31 boutiques across China including far-flung locations like Urumqi, the capital of China's northwestern Xinjiang region, according to its website. Among the brand's ambassadors is Chinese actress Zhang Ziyi from the hit kung fu epic Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.

Beginning of the Great Revival does not feature any other brands, but American carmaker Cadillac is an official sponsor. That has raised questions in the U.S. about the propriety of a partly American government-owned entity backing a communist propaganda film. Cadillac is a division of General Motors, which was a beneficiary of the 2009 auto industry bailouts.

The film, which traces the events leading to the founding of the Chinese Communist Party in 1921, has a stellar cast led by Chow Yun-fat and Andy Lau and has gotten a huge release.

That's led to expectations it will do big business. Han wouldn't give numbers but said the movie's early box office performance "wasn't bad."

An earlier companion movie, the equally star-studded "The Founding of a Republic," which marked the 60th anniversary of communist rule in China made $62 million.

Beginning of the Great Revival will be released in North America on June 24 in select AMC theaters.