"Titanic" is breaking box-office records across Chinese cities, and reactions to the American film seem to reflect a battle over China's identity as it moves toward a post-Communist society.
The Chinese president has suggested "Titanic" may be a "Trojan horse" aimed at speeding up the American cultural invasion of this long-isolated nation.
But university students say this winner of 11 Academy Awards provides an American fantasy and imported heroes for young Chinese who have lost their dreams and ideals. "In China today, many people are disillusioned with the past and are searching for new values and new heroes," says Yu Jie, a graduate student at Beijing University. "The legends of our history are falling like a house of cards, but watching "Titanic" temporarily injects hope, romance, and fantasy back into some people's lives," Mr. Yu says.
The streets of Beijing and other major Chinese cities have been flooded with a sea of advertisements for "Titanic."
The theme song for the film is at the top of the charts, and for the first time in Chinese history, scalpers are selling tickets for sold-out screenings in the capital. The regular ticket price is about $10, a week's pay for most urban Chinese.
Pirated videos of the film have been sold on Beijing street corners for months, but that has not stopped the city's young nouveaux riches from storming theaters here to watch the big-screen version.
"Nearly every aspect of Chinese society is becoming commercialized to the point where money is becoming god," Yu says. Ironically, he adds, "Because love transcends social class in the film, 'Titanic' provides an escape from that world even for alienated youths, which accounts for the film's massive popularity in Beijing."
Chinese culture, ideals, and goals have seemed to ride a political roller coaster since the 1949 Communist revolution, and many youths say today that they no longer know what to believe in.
The heady optimism of the 1980s ended with the 1989 Army crackdown on student-led protests in Beijing's Tiananmen Square. But there are growing signs the Communist Party is trying to restore its image through loosened controls on culture and a greater openness toward the West.
Chinese President Jiang Zemin "understands that younger Chinese are entranced by the West, and his forging stronger ties with the US is increasing his popularity here," says a university lecturer in Beijing.
The lecturer and other liberal-minded intellectuals say the unmatched publicity drive for "Titanic" is sending a political signal in a land where Western films were banned for decades. Two years ago, Beijing's leaders officially approved the release of up to 10 Western films annually in China. But the party still apparently worries that Hollywood's celluloid heroes could become Pied Pipers for China's youth.
After "Titanic" premiered in the walled-off section of the Forbidden City that serves as party headquarters, President Jiang said he wanted to invite the entire Politburo to a screening. Jiang cited passages from the ancient Chinese military classic, "The Art of War," in his rationale. "Only through knowing the enemy and knowing ourselves can we win a hundred wars," he was quoted as saying in the local press.
"The American entertainment complex is one of the strongest forces in the world, and probably has greater global influence than the US military," says Orville Schell, dean of the journalism department at the University of California at Berkeley.
Hollywood, satellite TV, and the Internet are helping to globalize Western popular culture, and that has some Chinese leaders worried, says Professor Schell, who is also a widely respected China scholar. "In China, there has always been a tremendous ambiguity about the Promethean power of the West, whether it be wielded by Hollywood or the military," he adds.
In one of the strangest endorsements to appear here, the state-run Beijing Evening News called the film "propaganda for the cause of Marxism." Yet the local distributor, Beijing United Film Company, took pains to distance itself from such claims. Manager Liang Yanlin says, "We can't really call the third-class passengers' breaking down Titanic's gates and overcoming its guards a socialist uprising." He adds that the company expects to make as much as 20 million yuan ($2.5 million) in Beijing, nearly three times the record for a Chinese film.
When the Communists gained power here, films were used largely to create socialist heroes for a state-planned society. But the collapse of state-backed role models and competition with Hollywood's powerful myth-making machine have led to poor ticket sales for socialist epics, say many industry experts.
"When China was closed off to the rest of the world, the entire country was like a darkened theater where the leaders could tell us what to believe in and who to worship," says the university lecturer.
"But today we can compare China with the entire world.
"Who's going to pay to see the socialist myths of the past when they seem even more unreal than the series of two-hour heroes produced by Hollywood?" he asks.