LESLIE Cheung is looming large over Cannes. His painted face is splashed all over a two-metre-tall billboard at the entrance to the Majestic Hotel - one of the most high-profile pieces of advertising money can buy. And written in equally large letters all over the 46th Cannes International Film Festival is a message: the Chinese are here and they mean to win big. Cheung's Farewell to my Concubine is heading the challenge of two Chinese language films for the festival's Palme d'Or. Also in the running is Hou Hsiao-hsien's The Puppet Master. Screen International reported last week that Farewell was running a close second, at 4-1, to Jane Campion's The Piano, the 7-2 favourite to lift the prize. Those odds reflect both the quality of the Tomson Film-produced epic and months of hard work from the company's publicists. They brought the big guns to town - the film's stars, Cheung, Gong Li and Zhang Fengyi are here, along with director Chen Kaige - and crammed the days before Wednesday's black-tie dinner and gala premiere with interviews, press conferences and receptions. Then there are the posters, the stills from the film, the T-shirts and the back cover advertisements on the trade magazines and newsletters which litter Cannes. Tomson hopes that all of this will help convince the judges to honour Farewell with the Palme d'Or tomorrow. Today they can only sit back and hope. The hard work was done last week. This is the story of how the Chinese set out to win Cannes. THE countdown begins. Director Chen and producer Hsu Feng arrive in Nice. A film festival limousine drives them from the airport to Cannes. When they arrive at the Majestic Hotel at midday a pack of Taiwanese reporters gathers around them in the lobby. With all the Chinese movies, in competition and in the market this year, Taiwan newspapers have sent an especially large contingent to cover the event. Hsu has barely time to see her room before publicist Norman Wang takes her and Chen off to the Majestic Beach restaurant across the street for their first interview, with Deborah Young of the powerful trade magazine, Variety. A Taiwanese photographer shows up at the restaurant, wanting a photograph for immediate transmission home. It is the first of many interruptions in an already hectic schedule. Hsu has not been able to sleep for two days and bows out of the afternoon interviews in order to rest. Chen speaks fluent English, having lived in New York for several years, so he handles the interviews easily. There is an exclusive Miramax party at 4.30 pm for the chosen few. Miramax has distributed some of the top independent films in the United States and will be distributing Farewell to My Concubine. Afterwards, Chen meets the French distributors of the film over drinks, before going to a dinner at the Grand Salon of the Carlton Hotel. GONG, Cheung and Zhang arrive from Hongkong on an early morning flight. Their check-in at the Carlton Hotel is also greeted by hordes of reporters. Chen spends the morning doing interviews with the Italian media. At 12.30 pm the entourage has been invited to meet the festival's director general, Mr Gilles Jacob, at a cocktail party on the Palais terrace. Champagne and hors d'oeuvres are served. Everyone shakes hands and a few photos are taken, but it is just a formality. Gong does not attend. On arriving in France, Gong announces she does not have a thing to wear. The cheongsam made for her in Hongkong does not fit, she says, so she must go shopping. Sunday Sun, production director for Tomson Films, accompanies her shopping in the afternoon. Gong picks up a few choice items on Tomson's account, including a little black tubular Moschino dress. The first press screening for Farewell takes place at 7.15 pm and the word is that the press reaction is ''favourable''. In the evening the Chinese reporters - from Taiwan, Hongkong and even the mainland are gathered in the lobby of the Carlton, restlessly awaiting the entourage. At 9 pm, the appointed time for the rendezvous, only Cheung is in evidence, nattily dressed and having a drink in the lobby. Cheung seems the most relaxed, he is used to publicity and speaks English, so he can handle the European and American press directly. ''Of course, I've been to France before,'' he says in Mandarin. ''But I've never been to the festival. It's interesting, I guess, but it's so commercial, perhaps it's getting too close to Hollywood.'' But isn't the Hongkong film industry intensely commercial? Cheung readily admits that it is, which is why he is not happy with it, though he is scheduled to make three or four films this year. ''I'm just doing it for the money,'' he says, with a rueful laugh. ''But after this year, I'm just going to do one film a year. I'll select films I really like and concentrate on those.'' He wants to make films that are meaningful and deep, such as Farewell to My Concubine. Hsu, Chen and Zhang arrive. Then, Gong appears at the bottom of the marble staircase and the photographers start snapping. Director, producer and actors gather for group shots. Afterwards, several Europeans crowd Gong for autographs. Due to the films of Zhang Yimou, such as Raise the Red Lantern and The Story of Qiuju, Gong is recognised by the media. CHEN has a series of interviews with the French press then shows up at 12.30 pm at the Palais for a ''photo call'' in the artists' lounge. Smartly dressed in a tan blazer, he is, however, beginning to look dazed from the marathon. One of the most famous of China's fifth-generation directors, Chen is a veteran at Cannes, with two previous official selections - the highly-lauded King of the Children (1984) and Life on a String (1991). ''Every time I come here, I feel I come here to fight a war,'' Chen says, with a weary gaze. ''The schedule is so tight, there are always so many things to do, so many people to talk to . . . but it is very exciting to be here.'' Soon the others arrive. Gong arrives by limousine. They pose for a series of photographs before being escorted into the press conference room next door, where about 200 international journalists await to discuss the film they saw the evening before. Generally, translations are offered simultaneously over headsets during these press conferences, but since the festival officials have not been informed of the need for a Chinese translation ahead of time, the translations are provided from the stage by three members of the Tomson staff. As with most of the press conferences at Cannes, the bulk of the questions are addressed to the director. Chen rises to the occasion: ''This is my third time at Cannes, I must have some kind of special relationship with this festival.'' Eloquent and thoughtful, he is in top form fielding questions about the rise of Chinese films in general and the characterisation and plot of Farewell to My Concubine. In response to a question about the political issues raised in the film, he responds: ''I put my own personal experience into this film. As I have always said, we all have an inescapable responsibility for the Cultural Revolution.'' Several journalists open with praise for the film before articulating their questions, as they did at the press conference for New Zealander Campion and her stunning The Piano, starring Holly Hunter as a wilful and mute 19th century woman. A Los Angeles reporter says that he thinks Farewell is ''an exquisite and remarkable film, one of the best in years''. Gong is asked what she looks for in the parts she plays. More co-operative than she has been in recent months with the Hongkong press, she says: ''The most important thing that I look for in a role is the character. I prefer one with many aspects. ''Perhaps when I choose movies, I choose parts that have some similarity with me. That way I can play them very well - and with self-confidence.'' A fortuitous question about her forthcoming plans allows her to get a few plugs in. ''In July I go back to China for my next film with Zhang Yimou, To Live, and I imagine I'll be busy with that through the end of the year,'' she said. ''Next year, I may be doing two films for a French film company.'' A Chinese reporter stands up to ask a question: ''We've heard that the film has not been given permission to show in Taiwan - could you comment on this?'' Last month the Department of Motion Picture Affairs in Taiwan denied Farewell to My Concubine an exhibition licence because actors from the mainland dominated the picture. Without the licence, the film is denied access to Taiwan's lucrative film and video market. Naturally, Hsu is delighted to answer this one. ''I really am very sorry not to be able to show this film in Taiwan,'' she said. ''I have heard a rumour, though, that if we win an award in Cannes, the government might be able to make an exception.'' The reporters laugh. The conference is over in 40 minutes, and the film entourage rushes over to a luncheon at the Majestic Hotel. A select group of international press and business connections are seated at five tables for a three-course seafood meal. Gong is interrupted before the end of her meal to do a CNN television interview in the foyer. The big dress-up event is tonight, so after the meal those who can - and that excludes journalists and publicists - retire for an afternoon nap. Dinner at 8 pm is a buffet at the Majestic Beach restaurant, a tent fronting the sea. Hosted by Miramax, French distributor ARP and Tomson, the dinner boasts an invitation list of around 200 and there are a lot of unfamiliar faces. There is a flurry of excitement when Gong enters. But people settle quickly at the tables. Soon it is time to make way to the evening premiere at 10.30 pm at the Grand Theatre Lumiere of the Palais, a short walk away. It is a venerable and somewhat stuffy tradition, with guests treading the red carpet up the wide staircase to the theatre in pomp and circumstance. Throngs of movie fans and photographers, busily snapping away, line either side. Music is played by a live band as men in tuxedos and women in formal dress enjoy their moment of glory. For Tomson boss Hsu, it is a kind of comeback - 17 years ago she was in Cannes as a young starlet, the lead in King Hu's kung fu classic A Touch of Zen. Since then, she has often dreamed of walking the red carpet of Cannes again. Hsu is one of the few Hongkong producers who is willing to fund serious, artistic films. Inside the vast theatre, the lights dim. First, a short trailer about the film festival, then the main feature begins. Two hours and 50 minutes later, the credits are rolling and the applause rises. The lights come up, and the spotlight falls on Chen, Hsu and the actors, who rise from their seats. The applause swells, they slowly turn and bow. Chen, very tall and distinguished with his tuxedo and his thick head of greying hair stands out easily. He actually looks happy for the first time in days as he smiles and nods, acknowledging the accolades showering down from the rafters. Even Gong looks happy. Although there seems a good chance of winning something this year, the competition from Mike Leigh's Naked, Campion's The Piano, and Much Ado About Nothing by Kenneth Branagh - starring his Academy Award-winning partner Emma Thompson - will be stiff indeed. Still, the Tomson team is hoping for the best. Cannes has been an expensive proposition for the film company, with all the advertising they have bought, the drinks, the lunches, the dinners, the publicists and translators, the hotels and the flights from half-way round the world. The evening dinner for the 200-plus guests at the Majestic cost around $800 a head and a room at the Majestic costs about $3,000 a night. But somehow, it is all worth it. Just before the press conference Chen was asked to sign the guest book in the artists' lounge. He picked up the large felt-tipped marker and wrote in bold Chinese characters: ''Cannes is the city where my dreams are realised.'' Scarlet Cheng is managing editor of Asian Art News and writes frequently on film and the arts.