"Titanic" is breaking box-office records across China, 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," Yu says.
The streets of Beijing and other major Chinese cities have been flooded with a sea of advertisements for "Titanic." The film's theme song is at the top of the charts, and for the first time, scalpers are selling tickets for sold-out screenings. 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 rich from storming theaters 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.
Chinese President Jiang Zemin "understands that younger Chinese are entranced by the West, and his forging stronger ties with the United States 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.
After "Titanic" premiered in the walled-off section of the Forbidden City that serves as party headquarters, Jiang said he wanted to invite the entire Politburo to a screening. He 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.
"The American entertainment complex is one of the strongest forces in the world, and probably has greater global influence than the U.S. 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 Schell, who is 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."
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 Co., 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."