BEIJING — An underground video sweeping Chinese cyberspace has half the country cracking up.
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.
Shortly after, we flash forward 20 years: The peasant is a queen, and there's nothing but anguish, regret, and special effects for another 122 minutes.
(At the end of the mystery, one of the comically grave morals read by Hu is, "Parents should caution their kids to be aware of a lady whose hair stands up and floats in the air. If they are asked anything by the lady, no matter what the question, they should answer 'no.' Otherwise their lives may be ruined.")
China-wide discussions started on what aspect of "Mantou" was funniest: Some argued for the grave crime-show host, who appears so serious while attempting to unravel a kooky spoof. Others liked little details, like a crime show "surrender hotline" for the guilty.
But most liked the two ads that Hu feathered in. One is an ad for hair gel showing the sprite Manshen, a famous actress, who says, "The gel that cannot make your hair stand up is counterfeit. Please check the brand Manshen carefully when you buy it."
The other ad is for "straw shoes," and takes off on the slave, who seems for most of the movie to be running nearly at the speed of light (one reason for the Einstein references). Viewers are asked to buy "escape for your life" brand sports shoes.
But the real-life drama of "Mantou" hardly ends with its dissemination. Because China does not have much tradition of humorous give and take, "Mantou" was a terrific affront to Chen.
To have a spoof of his movie gain overnight mass appeal was very unsatisfying to the senior director. Almost immediately, he began speaking about suing Hu for copyright violation, and made a number of very cutting remarks about him.
That went over very badly among ordinary Chinese. Many said it wasn't Hu's fault that Chen made a bad movie, not to mention the misleading press campaign about it.
Hu was just being funny, they said, and reversing the unhappy feelings of the Chinese people about "The Promise." Hu himself kept trying to apologize, but was never given the formal chance.
Chinese netizens formed support group websites. On Sina and Sohu, the two biggest Internet servers, support for Hu by the end of February was overwhelming. When asked on a Sohu.com forum, "which film do you like better, 'Mantou' or 'The Promise?' " 88.9 percent said "Mantou." More than 85 percent said Chen was making "too big a fuss" by threatening to sue.
One chat-room commentator stated that, "Except for the special effects, and the super actors and actresses, 'The Promise' is not special. Works with no spiritual value are rubbish. It's a waste of people's time and life, no matter who the director is!"
Chen withdrew his threat to sue. His producers are now talking about suing over property rights.
China Youth University law professor Yang Zhizhu argues that Mantou is actually a different film entirely from "The Promise," and that by dubbing it throughout, Hu changed the meaning of the scene - and therefore it may not be a legal violation.
Novelist Su Tong, who wrote "Raise the Red Lantern," made into a film by another famous director, Zhang Yimou, said he started off on Hu's side, but has not liked how one-sided the debate has become. "Chinese celebrities are always expected to behave and perform perfectly," he says. "I feel a little sorry for Chen now."