Hear No Evil, See No Evil: The Internationalization of Chinese Censorship Through Film
Posted on Nov 1, 2012 / Author: Charles Aruliah / Tags: Politics, Policy and Diplomacy, Education, Culture and Communities, censorship, Cinema, Film, iron man, Movies, red dawn
Source: Marvel's Iron Man 3 Domestic Trailer (OFFICIAL), Marvel Studios
Hollywood loves a good villain. In what would make even the English ‘Constitution’ blush, it is an undisputed and unwritten law that every film protagonist requires an opposing force - someone who is actively working to foil the main hero’s plan, is constantly placing obstacles to prevent the hero from reaching his or her goal, and in recent years … is not Chinese.
Over the last few years, Western movie studios have become more and more hesitant to cast their Eastern counterparts as the villains in their films. Take, for example, MGM’s upcoming remake of the 1984 movie Red Dawn. The original film depicted a group of small-town teenagers repelling a would-be Soviet invasion force. For its remake, MGM had set out to replace the original existential threat – the now defunct Soviet Union - with China. However, when word of this change got out to a number of Chinese newspapers, the backlash resulted in MGM reversing course, and the studio decided to use digital erasure techniques to remove all references to China, including all flags, insignia and dialogue. The new villain? North Korea.
In another example, the much-anticipated third installment of the Ironman series, which is to be partly filmed in China, is also rumored to be in for some ethnic tweaking when it comes to the portrayal of Chinese characters (keep in mind this is a series that has not shied away from placeholder antagonists - from Taliban-esque terrorists to disgruntled ex-Soviet physicists). Actor Ben Kingsley, who is set to play Ironman’s arch nemesis, ‘The Mandarin,’ is reportedly being altered so as to distance himself from his character’s Chinese roots.
…This coming from a villain whose name is The Mandarin.
In all fairness, some of these changes may be warranted. A menacing ‘outside’ threat the Chinese are not; the West’s relationship with China is more akin to the ‘odd couple’ with passive-aggressive jousts thrown at each other on occasion, especially when compared to the very real military threat that was the Soviet Union.
Furthermore, In terms of the film industry, China is a big player in many ways. As the second largest and fastest growing movie market, China can boost ticket sales by as much as $50 million per movie; James Cameron’s Avatar grossed US$195 million in additional revenue in China alone. It makes sense that Hollywood would not want to demonize one of its core audiences. And let’s face it, Ben Kingsley was never one for racial clarity in the first place (I’m looking at you Gandhi, Prince of Persia and Schindler’s List).
But something else is also going on. Besides simply removing Chinese villains from films, some studios have removed any references which may portray any Chinese character in a negative light, at times at the behest of China’s State Administration of Radio, Film and Television (SARFT). Men in Black 3, which grossed $22 million in its opening weekend in China, was forced to cut three minutes of film which featured Will Smith confronting aliens disguised as Chinese residents in New York’s Chinatown. Another scene which featured Smith’s character using a memory wiping device on a group of Chinese bystanders was also deleted as it “could have been a hint on the use of internet censorship to maintain social stability,” according to China’s Southern Daily Newspaper. A scene in The Dark Knight which depicts Batman capturing a Chinese money launderer from a building in Hong Kong prevented that film from releasing in China, while 2005’s Memoirs of a Geisha was blocked because of the possible offence that could be caused by the roles of Chinese actresses Zhang Ziyi and Gong Li, each of whom played Japanese courtesans. Even when films do manage to slip in Chinese antagonists, they typically don’t fare too well in China’s box office (as this previous EVOA blog points out).
While some of these changes occur mainly in China, major film studios are increasingly anticipating the censors’ scorn and are making changes preemptively in order to be considered as one of the 34 foreign films per year the Chinese government allows to be released in the country. As some have pointed out, this means that Chinese censorship is not only affecting Chinese domestic media, but our media as well. The willingness to restrict information has, in some ways, crossed borders.
To be fair, the implications for Canada aren’t directly evident. But Canada’s film industry still hosts the third and fourth largest production centres in North America, and our industry is intimately tied to that of our southern neighbour. Consequently, any pressures which are felt on both sides of the border will likely reverberate with Canadian audiences either way. But what it does mean is that, such cinematic sterilization may ultimately reduce the authenticity of dialogue on real-world issues in China, not necessarily just for Chinese audiences, but for us. While at first these actions may seem to combat negative clichés to which other countries have fallen victim (such as India), it merely replaces one stereotype for another - albeit one stereotype which is positive and the other which is negative.
Though I suppose in the end, asking the movie industry to stop stereotyping, be it positive or negative, is as futile an exercise as figuring out just what ethnic background Ben Kingsley really is…
The Ironman 3 Trailer can be watched on Youtube here.
The views expressed here are those of the author, and do not necessarily represent the views of the Asia Pacific Foundation of Canada.