"Hero," renowned director Zhang Yimou's first martial arts epic, nearly became a form of holiday greeting during Christmas.
Hundreds of thousands of Chinese have filed into movie theatres to see the multimillion-dollar film - known as yingxiong in Chinese - since December 20 when it began its cross-China screening.
The screening will continue until later this month.
The film, which cost US$31 million, is being touted as China's "largest-ever, mega-budget blockbuster."
The hottest Chinese actors and actresses - Hong Kong superstars Tony Leung Chiu-wai and Maggie Cheung Man-yuk and Hollywood kung fu star Jet Li - star in the movie.
Zhang Ziyi, the rising Chinese mainland star who caught the world's attention in 2001 with her performance in Ang Lee's "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon," is also in the film.
"Hero" has received mixed reviews since a private screening on December 14 in the Great Hall of the People in Beijing.
Some viewers argue "Hero" is a typical Zhang Yimou film, and that it is similar to "Raise the Red Lantern" and "Road Home."
Zhang Yimou has "pushed to the utmost degree the expressive power of film language, and offered audiences an unprecedented feast," said best-selling author Hai Yan.
Some critics have suggested the film is "flashy and glamorous on the surface, but pale and kitsch in content and theme."
There has been a heated "war of words" about "Hero" in many newspapers and over the Internet.
No other Chinese movie has attracted either the controversy or the attention of so many people.
With an unprecedented budget, "Hero" is expected to set numerous records and to boost the Chinese mainland's struggling film industry.
"Hero" reportedly grossed 100 million yuan (US$12 million) during its first week. Box office revenue is expected to top 150 million yuan (US$19 million).
In contrast, it took Hollywood's mega-budget blockbuster "Titanic" two weeks to achieve the same level of success in 1998 when it was released in China.
At that time, "Titanic" had set a record for revenue in China's film market.
Miramax, an international movie distributor from the United States, has purchased for US$20 million the North American and European rights to "Hero."
The film's producers have an ambitious marketing plan - including selling pre-screened commercial time, corporate sponsorships for premieres in major Chinese cities, and selling merchandise such as stamps, picture albums and online games - to ensure non-box-office profits.
The film's pre-screening commercial time was sold for a record 20 million yuan (US$2.5 million), topping the previous high of 1.2 million yuan (US$144,570) set in 2002 by "Big Shot's Funeral."
Guangdong Weija AV Products Co Ltd and Guangdong Face AV Co Ltd paid 17.8 million yuan (US$7.2 million) for the rights to the film's soundtrack and VCD/DVD distribution.
The audio-visual rights to Zhang's previous films have each been sold - exclusively to Guangzhou Qiaojiaren AV Products Co Ltd - for less than 1 million yuan (US$120,000).
The rights to "Cause," Gan Lu's documentary that chronicles Zhang's filming of "Hero," have been sold for 300,000 yuan (US$37,500) to several Chinese TV stations.
The book version of "Hero," adapted by young author Li Feng, is being sold across China for 20 yuan (US$3). Some 500,000 copies were printed for the first edition.
The cartoon version of "Hero," co-produced by Zhang and Hong Kong cartoonist Ma Rongcheng, will soon be released.
A series of stamps depicting "Hero's" leading characters will eventually be issued by China General Company of Stamps.
"Hero" is being hailed by film production companies, distributors and media as a "box-office saviour."
The film's producers hope "Hero" will win over international audiences, much like acclaimed Taiwan director Ang Lee's "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon."
"We wanted to shoot a film with a story that international viewers will understand, so they will understand why Chinese are infatuated with martial arts," said Zhang Weiping, chairman of Beijing New Image Film Co.
"Hero" has been designated by the State Administration of Radio, Film and Television as China's only Oscar candidate.
"Hero" could be nominated in the best foreign language film category. Nominees will be announced next month.
Film distributors in China have in recent years made significant progress in promoting films, as evidenced by the marketing of "Big Shot's Funeral" early last year and "Hero," said Li Ershi, a researcher of Chinese films with the Beijing Film Academy.
"Hero" will no doubt become a box-office smash given its huge budget, Zhang Yimou's appeal, the stellar cast and the top-notch film crew, including Hong Kong cinematographer Christopher Doyle and director Tony Ching Siu-tung, Li said.
Another key to the film's commercial success is the way Zhang Yimou balanced creativity and commercialism.
Zhang Yimou shortened the film from 150 minutes to 130 minutes at the request of US-based distributors.
"Film-making is a combination of art and business. Film artists should learn to compromise sometimes, as that can result in greater commercial success," Zhang Yimou said at a news conference.
"Convincing audiences to sit in a cinema to watch a film is vital for film artists and investors," Zhang Yimou added.
"No investment, no film. If I did not compromise, I would not have a chance to shoot my next film."
The film's producers and distributors closely guarded "Hero" during production, its one-week Oscar qualification run in a 100-seat theatre in Shenzhen, and during the premieres in Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou to ensure the best possible commercial success.
"Hero" score composer Tan Dun, who won an Oscar for "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon's" score, reportedly signed an agreement with Zhang Yimou and the film's investors to ensure a third party would not receive the film's only video copy.
There was incredibly tight security, to prevent pirating of "Hero," during the film's Shenzhen showing.
Viewers could not take bags, cellphones or watches into the theatre, and eyeglasses were checked for hidden micro-camcorders.
Reports indicate there was one security guard for every three members of the audience.
Film distributors have been working closely with law enforcement officials to crack down on piracy.
Chinese officials have blocked at least 20 websites providing illegal, video-format downloads of "Hero."
"If 'Hero' is pirated at the beginning of its screening in the Chinese mainland, it will lose half of its box office revenues," Zhang Yimou told China Central Television in mid-December.
Media exposure is crucial for "Hero's" success, Li said.
Publicity campaigns were launched two years ago, just after filming began. "Hero" was shot in Dunhuang, in Northwest China's Gansu Province.
The film's producers kept Chinese audiences updated through entertainment media with the film's progress, which heightened expectations for the film's release.
Beijing New Image Film Co and Chinese film distributors spent about 10 million yuan (US$1.2 million) in advertising - from film trailers on China Central Television and posters to Internet pop-up ads.
Distributors are also planning high-profile events - including auctioning off the film's CD, VCD/DVD rights, and grand premieres that feature soldiers in ancient army uniforms and stars arriving in limousines.
The distributors chartered a deluxe jet plane, an unprecedented move within the Chinese film industry, for the promotional tour.
"The promotion of 'Hero' has been a good lesson for China's film industry, especially on how to sell film products," said Chen Shuping, a veteran film distributor in Beijing.
(Business Weekly January 14, 2003)