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A spoof hits China's Web - and a star is born

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / March 13, 2006


An underground video sweeping Chinese cyberspace has half the country cracking up.

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Titled "A Murder Caused by Mantou," the video is a spoof of a new film, "The Promise," by famed director Chen Kaige.

Using satiric elements similar to Monty Python and the Simpsons, the spoof has flooded cyberspace in unanticipated and unstoppable waves. And in a culture where there is scant public lampooning, the video has brought intense debates, smiles - and serious threats of legal action.

Mr. Chen, of "Farewell My Concubine" fame, directed "The Promise" at a cost of $44 million, the most expensive film ever made in China.

But it didn't live up to its title. The martial-arts soap opera - set in medieval times and heavy on special effects - bombed. Most unforgivable, it opened amid an unprecedented media blitz ahead of the recent lunar New Year holiday, a time of great emotional anticipation in China. People took the hook, bought tickets en masse - then left theaters, many said, feeling "cheated."

Enter Hu Ge. A shy, bespectacled young musician and audio salesman living in Shanghai, he usually goes to the cinema only for foreign films. But he was lured by the press campaign of "The Promise." He wished to view the "new masterpiece of China," as he told a friend. Afterward, he felt exasperated. But he quickly got an idea for a lampoon.

So Hu - a graduate of Huzhong University in Hubei, with a degree in "measurement and control technology" - went to work. Over nine days he wrote, diced, and sliced, using two computers. He morphed the medieval tale into a present-day story. A wandering plot about a king, a duke, and a slave who all love a queen was compressed into a crime-solving TV drama in China.

The king becomes manager Wang, who runs a money-losing recreational center. The queen is the assistant manager. The slave is a city clerk. Hu dubs all the voices. He throws in rap music, clips from the Shanghai circus, Einstein's theory of relativity, patriotic Army recruitment posters, and a "Brokeback Mountain" homosexual allusion. All are grist for an investigation "narrated" by the deadpan host of "China Legal Report," which airs on prime-time TV.

Hu sent the film to friends for personal entertainment. But they posted it on the Web. Within a month, millions of Chinese, nearly everyone on the Internet, had seen it. Young Chinese especially found themselves in tears of laughter over "A Murder caused by Mantou."

The effect was something like "Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In," a TV show popular in the late 1960s, with its famous line, "And now for something completely different." "Mantou" is also inspired by Hong Kong director Stephen Chow's latest parody of martial-arts films, "Kung Fu Hustle."

"All the movies of the spring festival didn't touch our minds or hearts," says Ms. Zhao, a graduate student in international studies. "We were very unhappy. But Mantou was better than all the films of the spring, and made up for them."

Mantou refers to steamed bread. The bread shows up in the first scene, when the die is cast. A very young peasant girl scavenging on a battlefield grabs a mantou from a dead soldier. A strange and morally ambiguous female sprite with 5-foot locks of hair that stand straight up, confronts the half-starved waif and offers her a choice: she can have the power to receive whatever she wants. But if she agrees, she will never experience true love. Without thinking, she takes the Faustian bargain.