A Chinese Blogger's Tale
When Hu Ge posted a parody of director Chen Kaige's latest film, he never
expected it would set off a national debate. But it did.
MARCH 2, 2006, By Dexter Roberts, Business Week
Given the recent uproar over Google (GOOG), Yahoo! (YHOO), and Microsoft (MSFT)
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. Advertisement
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
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
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
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.
Roberts is BusinessWeek's Beijing bureau chief