With Beijing's young homegrown star Ziyi Zhang appearing this month in the heavily promoted "Memoirs of a Geisha," it might seem to be cause for China to celebrate.
On the contrary, many Chinese film fans are denouncing Zhang for accepting a risque Japanese role and blasting American filmmakers at a time of rising tension between Asia's dominant powers. The criticism reflects a volatile strain of nationalism growing in China, which has fueled bursts of anti-Japan riots and increasingly worries Asian neighbors.
"She is the most shameless Chinese woman in the world. I wonder whether she ever thought about the pain brought by the Sino-Japanese war," wrote one of the gentlest critics on a Web forum crackling with attacks.
Despite billions of dollars in economic ties between China and Japan, both governments have turned to nationalism in recent years as a valve for social and political discontent. As communism fades into the free-market reality of today's China, Communist authorities permit, and at times manipulate, a strong new brand of nationalism to unify young people groping for an ideology.
Even before the DVD has hit Beijing streets - pirated films sometimes arrive within 72 hours after their American premiere - online critics are attacking Zhang for appearing in love scenes with Japanese actor Ken Watanabe and for accepting such a controversial role at the behest of American filmmakers. The flap bubbled over from nationalist Web sites into mainstream forums, where angry patriots called Zhang a moral disgrace and "traitor to the Han people," mainland China's dominant ethnicity, for her turn as Sayuri, the main character.
The criticism caught the star and filmmakers by surprise. Academy Award-winning director Rob Marshall had expected a warm welcome from Asian audiences for casting the first all-Asian line-up for a big-budget Hollywood production, adapted from Arthur Golden's successful 1997 American novel. It stars Watanabe, Zhang and fellow Chinese actress Gong Li, as well as Chinese-Malaysian actress Michelle Yeoh.
Despite the criticism, the filmmakers and its stars stand by the casting. They argue that insisting on only Japanese performers would have been discriminatory and would have departed from a long tradition of actors ranging outside their own nationality and ethnicity.
"As actors, we seek roles that challenge and inspire us," Gong Li, known for her work in "Raise the Red Lantern" and other films, told the Associated Press recently.
"Think of all the amazing performances that would be lost: Meryl Streep as a Polish woman in 'Sophie's Choice'; Russell Crowe as an American in 'The Insider'; Ralph Fiennes as a German in 'Schindler's List'; Vivien Leigh as an American in 'Gone With the Wind'; Sir Anthony Hopkins as an American president in 'Nixon,'" Gong said.
Zhang's supporters in China defend her performance as a bold bid to defy stereotypes for Chinese actors.
"The criticism is unjustified. Zhang has the right to take any role she wants," said Chang Li, a senior teacher at Beijing's Central Academy of Drama, who taught Zhang for four years. "The Chinese people should be proud of her for getting the recognition she is receiving. Do you see Japanese audiences getting angry when a Japanese actress plays a Chinese character?"
But "Memoirs" treads on particularly sensitive cultural ground in China, where citizens bitterly complain that Japan has not adequately apologized for atrocities committed before and during World War II. During Japan's 1937-38 occupation of the Chinese city of Nanjing, Japanese troops killed 300,000 Chinese soldiers and civilians and raped tens of thousands of women. Japanese officials have expressed "deep remorse" for Japan's behavior during the war, but China remains unsatisfied.
China routinely criticizes Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi for visiting the Yasukuni Shrine, which commemorates Japan's war dead, including 12 Class A war criminals, and the two nations have long disputed rights to an uninhabited islet in the East China Sea.
Chinese animosity erupted last April when thousands of mostly young people rioted at the Japanese Embassy and consulates in China after Japan's Education Ministry approved several textbooks that critics called a whitewash of history. Chinese police, who stood by and watched the riots for several days, reined them in only amid signs they could veer into more sensitive domestic issues.
The heart of the new nationalist movement is notably young - too young to be dissuaded by dark memories of mass political hysteria during the Cultural Revolution. Nationalism began to rise in the mid-'90s, China pop culture analysts say, as a fast-changing society struggled to balance frustration with pride. Today's China is marked by rampant corruption, rigid curbs on expression, widening social inequality, as well as growing stature in the world and a steadily rising standard of living.
"The Chinese economy keeps growing and that enhances the national self-esteem," said Miao Di, professor of media research at China Media University in Beijing. "On the other hand, there is still a real lack of national confidence, and so in between those two you get these sensitivities about issues related to China's image."