BEIJING — After forking over a hard-earned $10 for a blockbuster he loathed, freelance video and sound engineer Hu Ge did something few in his country would dare do, even if they knew how.
The blogger sat down at his computer and churned out a video spoof of the film, the kung fu fantasy "The Promise," and e-mailed it to a few friends.
Within days, it had became the most downloaded and talked-about item in China's exploding blogosphere, and made Hu an instant cyber-hero. And his notoriety shot far beyond the Web when the subject of his parody, Chen Kaige, the award-winning Chinese director best known in the West for "Farewell, My Concubine," threatened last month to sue him for copyright violations.
In the process, Hu has been swept up in a national debate over the freedom of the little guy to speak out against the cultural establishment.
"I am not a hero. I just wanted to have some fun," the 31-year-old said by phone from Shanghai as he reluctantly took a break from shooting pool.
Compared with most other countries, the Internet in China is far from free. Content is strictly controlled by the government, although tech-savvy users can get around the censors by using proxy servers or code words.
American tech giants Yahoo, Google and Microsoft have been accused by U.S. lawmakers of helping sustain the so-called Great Firewall of China, which blocks searches of terms deemed sensitive, such as "free speech" and "human rights."
But in today's China, the freedom to speak one's mind is increasing, especially in cyberspace. More than 110 million Chinese surf the Internet, and an estimated 20 million have become registered bloggers, said Fang Xingdong, founder and chief executive of Beijing-based Boke.com, which boasts 8 million bloggers since it went online in 2002.
The vast majority of Chinese Web surfers are like Hu: They have few political aspirations and are making the most of the Internet's power to expand their horizons and express how they feel.
The popularity of Hu's spoof shows that humor can prove powerfully subversive.
"This is the great clash of cultures," Fang said. "The movie director represents the elite and the blogger represents the grass roots. One thinks he's untouchable, and the other thinks it's his freedom to play and do as he wishes."
Hu symbolizes the carefree digital generation coming of age in China. The college graduate worked as a radio deejay but quit that job because it was "too boring." He taught himself video and music editing and does freelance work. He moved from Beijing to Shanghai "because it's more comfortable here." He loves American movies such as "The Matrix" as well as the rock band Guns N' Roses. On his Web log, he posts pictures of himself rollerblading in colorful tights.
Director Chen used to be a cultural rebel too. Some of his earlier movies, art house favorites abroad, were banned in China because they went against the grain of the sunny propaganda-like films favored by China's cultural commissars.
Since then, critics say, Chen has become part of the establishment. "The Promise" reportedly cost $35 million, one of the most expensive films ever made in China. Tickets were about $10 a pop, a hefty price for the average Chinese urbanite, who makes $1,000 a year.
Critics charge that Chen was so concerned about box-office returns that during the movie's premiere late last year he tried to prevent any negative reviews from seeing the light of day.
"So what do you call an artist who wants to ban freedom of expression? An oxymoron or simply a moron?" jabbed one editorial writer in the official China Daily newspaper.
The bad press intensified when Chen called Hu "shameless" and threatened him with a lawsuit. "He is taking someone else's intellectual property and arbitrarily changing it and ruining it. If it were your movie, how would you feel?" Chen complained to reporters last month.
In his short video, which he named "The Bloodbath That Began With a Steamed Bun," Hu mocks much more than Chen's movie. The video pokes fun at the premise of Chen's epic, in which a hungry girl lies to a boy and steals his steamed bun. The boy, played by Hong Kong heartthrob Nicolas Tse, grows up to hate the world and becomes a coldblooded killer.
Hu resets Chen's story in the context of a crime report being narrated by a stiff anchor on state-run television. He spices it up with fake commercials that echo the over-the-top plot line of Chen's movie and superimposes social commentary, such as migrant workers waiting for their back pay, on the dialogue of lavishly costumed actors.
Internet users ate it up. Best of all, they say, it was free.
"A lot of people are looking for any opportunity to voice dissent on government policy," said Zhou Xiaozheng, a sociologist at People's University in Beijing. "But in China you cannot directly criticize the government. Any voice that is different from the party line, people will just love it. In this case, they feel cheated by the big-budget movie. They see Chen as wearing the same pants as the Communist Party."
It's unclear whether the battle will end up in court. Chen has more or less stopped talking to the media. Hu said he had apologized to Chen but had no intention of admitting he had violated Chen's rights.
"In China there is no clear legal definition for parody," said Kevin Guo, Hu's lawyer. "If we get a definite verdict, it would have huge impact on the future ability of Chinese people to do anything similar. But I have a feeling that's not going to happen. The rules on parody will probably remain purposefully vague."