`BLACK SNOW,'' a film by Beijing director Xie Fei, has been a success overseas but not here in its own country - for reasons that are political. The movie won a silver prize at this year's Berlin Film Festival and was purchased by Japanese, Canadian, and West German companies for showings in those countries. But the low-budget, $140,000 film has barely broken even here in China, selling fewer than 50 copies to distributors, who are fearful that hard-line Communist Party leaders will ban it for its exposure of the seamy, soulless strain in Chinese society.
When the filming of ``Black Snow'' began early last year, however, few imagined it would be controversial. But since the Beijing massacre last June 3 and 4, Marxist ideologues have moved to stifle criticism of China's ``dark side,'' calling on artists to ``praise pioneers in the modernization drive'' instead.
Director Xie says, ``The government is paying people to shoot movies about the revolution, Lei Feng [the martyred soldier], and the `four modernizations,' - not about people like Li Huiquan'' - the angry, introverted young man whose crisis of faith in China today is the focus of ``Black Snow.''
In the film, Li Huiquan, jailed three years for gang fighting, returns one frozen winter day in 1988 to an empty, ramshackle hut in a working-class neighborhood of Beijing. Li's mother, who died during his absence, has left him alone with bank savings of 1,000 yuan ($270) and bittersweet memories that seem to come and go with the eerie wail of pigeons.
Relegated to the fringes of Beijing's status-conscious society, the uneducated youth becomes a private pedlar. By day he sells Nike sports shoes and frilly lingerie to droning, crassly materialistic crowds. At night he retreats to the shadows, drink, and the diversion of cheap nightclubs.
But unlike the small-minded customers, hooligans, and black marketeers who keep him company, Li is determined to find greater meaning in life - a spiritual quest that leads him to a tragic end.
``Chinese people are spiritually vexed. The whole country is confused,'' said Mr. Xie in an interview at the Beijing Film Academy, where he teaches. ``If people lack clear faith and goals, their lives become meaningless.
``I was a Red Guard, full of blind idealism,'' recalls Xie, referring to millions of frenzied youths who rampaged across China in the late 1960s, attempting to wreck the nation's ancient culture. ``But we were wrong. In fact, we were duped, tricked,'' he said.
Over the past decade, many Chinese disillusioned with Maoism have searched in vain for spiritual sustenance from the pragmatic creed of Deng Xiaoping. Instead, they have found a more money-hungry, corrupt, commercialized society spawned by 10 years of market reforms.
``Now money dominates everything,'' says Xie. ``In the age of reform, we are still searching for real values to live by.''
Li Huiquan's ill-fated quest for meaning is brought to life on the screen by Jiang Wen, one of China's finest young actors. But as skillfully played by Jiang, Li Huiquan bears little resemblance to the ``new socialist man'' being glorified by conservative Premier Li Peng. Nor does the class-conscious, politically paranoid world that Li inhabits resemble the benevolent, flowery society painted by party propagandists.
Like many private entrepreneurs in China, Li faces resentment from Chinese who are at once jealous of his fat wallet and disdainful of his lack of culture. As an ex-convict, Li is stigmatized as one who ``had problems,'' patronized by the police who watch him, shunned by potential girlfriends, and kept at a cool distance by former acquaintances. Li's childhood buddy, Fang Chazi, who was sentenced to life imprisonment for murdering his girlfriend's lover, ``doesn't count as one of the family,'' Fang's mother tells Li.
Rejecting the seedy existence and material temptations flung at him, Li finds fleeting solace in the childlike songs and innocent demeanor of a young pop singer, whom he meets at a nightclub and escorts home. Li idolizes the singer, Zhao Yaqiu, making her his safe house of purity and light. But with her rising stardom, Zhao goes the way of all that Li has renounced.
One night he finds her singing at a hotel bar, heavily made up and wearing a revealing costume. When Li confronts her with dating a married man, she shrugs it off, saying, ``I never take that seriously.''
On learning that his goddess is a tramp, Li falls apart. Dazed, he mingles with a crowd of spectators in a public square as comedians parody traditional Chinese dance and modern disco.
Later, in a corner of the park two thieves rob and stab him. But Li never crys for help, dying amid the litter of the empty square as departing workmen leave him for drunk, or insane.
In its sympathy for Li's inner struggle, ``Black Snow,'' creates a tragic hero likely to appeal to many Chinese. Moviegoers polled in Tianjin and other cities listed the film, based on a novel of the same name, as one of their favorites.
But some critics writing in the official press have attacked Xie for the picture's heavy-hearted ending.
``The government wants to propagate `happy stories,''' says Xie with a laugh.