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A Chinese blogger's tale

March 23, 2006 09:13 IST
Given the recent uproar over Google, Yahoo!, and Microsoft making concessions to Chinese Internet censors, you would think the disruptive, establishment-toppling power of blogging would be pretty muted on the mainland. Well, think again. Consider the bizarre tale of an internationally renowned Chinese film director, his ex-wife, and a hitherto unknown young Chinese blogger, who has suddenly emerged as national celebrity.

Hu Ge, 31, is a Shanghai-based blogger who never expected to be a household name in China. He spends his days doing freelance video editing for animation and advertising companies. After working hours, this die-hard Michael Jackson fan plays drums, guitar, and keyboards in a rock 'n' roll band formed with a few friends. "I don't like too much attention being paid to me," says Hu.

But all that changed after this movie buff went to see acclaimed director Chen Kaige's latest offering: The Promise. Chen is probably the closest thing China has to a Steven Spielberg.

And this epic fantasy about an orphaned girl granted incredible beauty from an enchantress in exchange for the promise that she can never be with her true love cost a cool $35 million to make. While chump change by Hollywood standards, that makes it one of China's most expensive productions ever.

Steam Heat

Expectations were thus riding high when the film was released in December. Chen, after all, is a bankable director with an impressive track record. He's best known for his box office hit Farewell My Concubine, which won a 1993 Golden Globe for best foreign film.

Late last year, Hu plunked down 10 bucks to see the flick and thought it was a mediocre piece of work -- as did Chinese film critics. He then crafted a 20-minute video satirizing Chen's creation and e-mailed it to a few friends as something of a lark. "I decided to do this for fun. And also to practice my video-editing skills," says Hu.

End of story? Hardly. Hu's spoof on Chen's work is entitled The Bloody Case that Started from a Steamed Bun. It basically takes Chen's poignant mythic drama and ridicules it by refashioning the story line into a mock legal-investigative TV program. The video ricocheted quickly around the blogosphere and e-mail networks at the turn of the year, becoming one of the most downloaded video clips on the Chinese Net, according to Chinese press reports.

Hu's efforts also started getting picked up by newspapers and magazines, and eventually became a national story on Chinese TV. Says Hu: "I didn't expect the video to spread so widely on the Internet," he says. "And I didn't expect Chen Kaige to see this film."

Crossing The Line?

Chen did see it -- and he was none too pleased. While attending the Berlin Film Festival last month, Chen threatened to sue Hu Ge for defamation and copyright violations. (Much of Hu's parody uses footage from a pirated DVD of The Promise, as well as a legal-affairs show that that is aired by CCTV, the state-owned broadcaster.) Chen told reporters from the Chinese Internet portal Sina.com: "I think this [parody] has exceeded the normal bounds of issuing commentary and opinion. It's an arbitrary alteration of someone else's intellectual property."

Then came the anti-Chen backlash, as Chinese media pundits started to suggest the film director was far too thin-skinned about the matter. Chinese Netizens even vowed to launch online fund-raising campaigns to cover any of Hu's legal costs in a court case, if it came to that. Things really started to turn operatic when Chen's ex-wife, Hung Huang, jumped into the fray on Hu's behalf.

Hung is an author and publisher of the Chinese-language edition of Seventeen magazine, as well as Time Out Beijing, a popular entertainment guide. She is also something of a celebrity herself, and a well-connected one: Her mother actually taught English and translated for Chinese leader Mao Zedong.

"Freedom Of Speech."

Hung is also a blogger, whose site is hosted by mega-portal Sina.com and reaches hundreds of thousands of Chinese. In one blog entry she criticized Chen for losing his cool. "Self-mockery is a weapon of all intelligent people. Especially when they meet difficulties, self-mockery can instruct and help them out of a predicament," she wrote, according to a translation by Danwei.org, a Web site on Chinese media and marketing.

Blogger Hu is even more critical, suggesting that "the people have a tendency to support the weak. And Chen Kaige's actions made the Chinese people feel like he is trying to stop people from having the ability to criticize films. The people want to protect their freedom of speech."

Whether this verbal brawl between blogger and filmmaker will end up in the Chinese courts is unclear. Chen and Chen Hong, the film director's wife who acted in as well as served as producer for The Promise, declined to comment for this story, according to Chen Hong's agent when contacted by BusinessWeek Online.

Amazing Stories

Zhu Xiaoyu, a lawyer representing the two production companies backing Chen's film, says he has contacted Hu, seeking an apology and admission of intellectual-property infringement. "He said he will think about it, but we have not received any further response," says Zhu, who works for the Beijing-based Haotian Law Office, which represents the Zhongying Group and 21st Century Shengkai.

Meanwhile, the lawyer representing Hu, Guo Yuhang of the Shanghai-based Baiyulan Law Firm, is confident his client will win, should the case go to court. Guo believes that under Chinese law, "Hu Ge's video falls in the category of art critique," and thus is fair use.

Hu, however, just wants his life back, and would like to stop spending so much time talking to journalists. But his new-found celebrity has won him some valuable opportunities. He says two Chinese production companies have contacted him about collaborating on film projects. He loves Spielberg's work and has aspirations of writing and directing his own movies. His own remarkable blog story might give him something to work with.

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Dexter Roberts, BusinessWeek