`MAMA, Love Me Again,'' a weepy commercial drama from Taiwan, has unexpectedly emerged as one of the biggest film hits ever in mainland China as it sells more than 100 million tickets. Chinese of all ages are thronging to see the film, the sentimental saga of how a single mother and her illegitimate son are torn apart by the overwhelming obligations of Confucian family life.
``People are watching it two or three times,'' says Yu Xiaowen, a manager of Beijing's Capital Cinema, which virtually sold out each screening. The movie's theme song is a household favorite in Beijing, Shanghai, and other major cities.
``Mama'' is also tugging the heartstrings of China's 800 million peasants. In poor mountain towns in western Hunan Province, struggling cinema managers say the film has ``saved'' them by packing in the best audiences in years, according to a Chinese who recently toured the region.
And in a village in southern Guangdong Province, 18 people were trampled to death as moviegoers stampeded the entrance of an open-air cinema between showings of the picture on New Year's Eve.
Chinese film critics have panned the movie as ``mediocre,'' ``unoriginal'' and ``a tear-gas bomb.'' (Ushers at some theaters handed out paper tissues at the door.) They bemoan the amazing box-office success of the B-grade film, which was virtually ignored in Taiwan, saying it shows the poor taste of China's mass audience.
But others say the film's spectacular popularity reveals deeper social undercurrents in China: a yearning for intimacy too often repressed by the communist regime, and the visceral appeal of ancient Confucian values despite four decades of Marxist indoctrination.
``Chinese are fed up with political campaigns and need something more human,'' says Luo Xueying, director of the art department of the China Film Association. ``This film moves people with feeling and sentiment.''
A Beijing factory worker who saw ``Mama'' agrees.
``People on the mainland are in hunger and thirst for the human touch,'' she says. ``For years, the government has stressed class struggle at the cost of people's feelings.''
A modern adaptation of the Taiwan legend ``Eighteen Years in the Life of a Madwoman,'' the movie opens with the daughter of a bar girl falling in love with the son of a rich Taipei businessman named Lin, and becoming pregnant.
Forbidden to marry by the man's status-conscious mother, the young woman (Yang Kui-mei) returns to her home village. There, she bears and raises the baby alone, projecting all her love on the boy, named Ch'iang (Hsieh Hsiao-yu).
Back in Taipei, the wealthy Lins discover that the wife they chose for their son is barren. Desperate for a male heir to carry on the ancestral line, Mrs. Lin vows to take custody of Ch'iang. Bound by seemingly inescapable Confucian mores, his mother surrenders the 6-year-old boy.
The tragedy unfolds when Ch'iang attempts to flee back to the village and disappears during a typhoon. After an all-night search, his anguished mother loses her sanity in a fall. She recovers only 18 years later in a chance reunion with her grown son.
Aesthetically, the film would strike Western viewers as maudlin, even comically so, with its drawn-out scenes of weeping, sugary laughter, and overdramatized flash-backs. The acting appears stilted and emotions forced.
But for China's audiences, steeled by a recent onslaught of propaganda films on Mao Zedong, model communists, and 1940s Red Army campaigns, the tragic tale offers an emotional catharsis.
``This movie speaks to their hearts, so they like it,'' says Taiwan Director Chen Chu-huang during a private screening at a Taipei video shop.
Above all, the film embraces deeply rooted Confucian values - values that endure as the single most important moral reference point for Chinese despite efforts by the Communist Party to supplant them with Marxist teachings.
Confronting the tensions of modern life, the movie's characters tend to fall back into traditional roles in the Confucian social hierarchy in a way that would reassure many Chinese today.
Mrs. Lin, with her gold-rimmed glasses, wads of cash, and plush sedan, is the classic dragon-lady matriarch. Her single-minded goal of preserving the family line is one shared by millions of Chinese grandparents.
Ch'iang's mother in many ways epitomizes the Confucian ideal of the totally self-sacrificing woman. She suppresses her own love for her son to ensure him a better future and social respect.
The little boy's devotion to his mother is also Confucian.
``In Chinese tradition one must show filial obedience to his mother. That is the most basic virtue,'' says Mr. Chen. ``If someone wants to be great, he must begin with his own family.''
In a sign of concern over the film's massive appeal, Beijing refuses to disclose the exact number of tickets sold, but admits it is one of the highest in years. China Film Import and Export Corp. official Qiu Cuiding puts the figure at more than 100 million but less than an unofficial estimate of 500 million.
While reluctant to offend Taipei, Beijing authorities have voiced muted displeasure over what they call the director's uncritical emphasis on ``feudal'' Confucian codes like patrilineage and ancestor worship.
``There is both essence and dross in traditional Chinese ethics and we should discard the dross,'' says Li Wenbin, an official at the Ministry of Radio, Film, and Television, in a critique of the movie.
The official monthly magazine Popular Cinema recently published a column of letters attacking the film as ``neo-Confucian,'' feudalistic, and ``unfit for children.'' Cai Shiyong, the magazine's editor in chief, accused the director of ``agitating the emotions of the audience in a deliberate way.''
Beijing may worry that fast-growing cultural exchanges across the Taiwan Straits could carry political costs, as Taiwan's films, pop music, and literature step in to fill an increasingly apparent emotional void in the lives of mainland Chinese.
Nevertheless, Mr. Li confirmed that a Shanghai film studio has plans to cooperate with the Taiwan cast and director to produce a sequel to ``Mama, Love Me Again.''