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Enter the dragon

James Bond is dangling a French hitman from a window on the top floor of a Shanghai skyscraper. “Who are you working for?” he demands. But before he gets an answer, 007’s grip slips and the Gallic assassin plunges to his death. Bond is left alone and perplexed.

“In 2012 Hollywood films took more than $2.7 billion in China, making the country far and away the biggest international market”

And he’s not the only one. In the version of the film ‘Skyfall’ screened in the West, cinemagoers saw the preamble to this scene: Bond trailing the Frenchman into the building, watching him shoot the Chinese security guard and clinging to the bottom of the lift in which he ascends. Chinese viewers, however, weren’t privy to the preamble, as the censors cut the murder of their countryman and the scenes surrounding it. There were other changes too. In the original version, it’s suggested that Bond girl Severine is a Macau prostitute: in the Chinese version, she’s in the mob. In the original, arch-villain Silva (played by Javier Bardem) tells a harrowing tale of his torture at the hands of the Chinese authorities, which was absent in the version shown in China.

Once it was the money shots that studios craved, now it’s cutting that brings in the cash. ‘Skyfall’ made a record $16 million at the Chinese box office on its opening weekend, going on to take $950 million overall. With so much at stake, who cares about a few plot holes?

In 2012 Hollywood films took more than $2.7 billion in China, making the country far and away the biggest international market. The potential for moneymaking shows no signs of slowing down, with ten new screens opening every day to keep up with demand. But the real showstopper for Hollywood is the fact that the $2.7 billion was spread over just 20 films, the only ones permitted to be shown by the Chinese censorship bureau. In comparison, the North American total box office was $10.8 billion spread over 512 films. With an average return of $21 million per film at home vs $135 million abroad, it is no wonder that Hollywood is betting large on red.

The problem is that the recipe for domestic box office glory (sex, violence, low-level jingoism and the joys of consumerism) doesn’t tend to play well with the Chinese censors, who are now the gatekeepers to the most lucrative of markets.

Of course Hollywood is no stranger to censorship. In ‘Movie-Made America’, film historian Robert Sklar noted that until the mid-1930s, foreign countries only occasionally censored US films in order to protect their own “moral interests” – Japan cut kissing, the UK cut references to God. But starting at the end of the dirty ’30s, the world started monitoring Tinseltown fare for sex, violence and “dangerous politics”. And while America didn’t censor its films, per se, it did self-regulate towards the same purpose.

Protection of public morals continues to be a pretext for international censorship, but discrimination has become an equally big concern. Although horror movies tend to be banned most frequently because they are the most explicit, these days foreign censors also regularly shield audiences from what they perceive as American xenophobia.

And the US does seem to have a particular knack for offending China. Back in 2006, ‘Mission: Impossible: III’ reportedly lost six minutes of footage after censors removed three scenes. One had a group of elderly Chinese playing mahjong next to the place where Tom Cruise’s character’s wife was being held hostage. A spokesperson for China Film Group, a state run distributor, said the scene suggested that “common Chinese people were… insensitive to a hostage situation.” Other scenes had Chinese residents hanging laundry outside dilapidated homes, which People’s Daily Online claimed “tarnished the image of Shanghai”.

The last scene saw Cruise throwing a baseball to distract a bunch of Chinese soldiers before obliterating them. According to The Times’s correspondent in China, it was deemed offensive because “it suggests that Shanghai police may not be the world’s finest thief-catchers.” A year later, Chinese actor Chow Yun Fat’s screen time in ‘Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End’, in which he played Sao Feng, a character based on legendary Chinese pirate Cheung Po Tsai, was reportedly cut in half for, according to the Xinhua News Agency, “vilifying and defacing the Chinese”.

Offending the world

But its not just China. Hollywood has also ruffled feathers in the Gulf. In 2006, local censors cut three scenes from ‘Syriana’ after spending four months poring over the Dubai-based-and-filmed feature: a shot of a photograph of the late Saudi King Fahd, a scene showing the mistreatment of Asian workers and one in which Osama Bin Laden is linked to Mecca.

“We would never allow anything that is disrespectful to the country or the president, causes security problems, insults religions, exhibits immorality like nudity or promotes vices like alcohol and drugs,” said Dubai censorship spokesperson Aleem Jumaa at the time. This helped explain the UAE’s decision three years earlier to remove all of Oscar winner Morgan Freeman’s scenes from ‘Bruce Almighty’, a film in which a regular joe is given godly powers by the Creator. Morgan was playing God and his absence rendered the film nonsensical – and short.

But the Middle East’s biggest cinematic bugbear continues to be American immorality. In 2011, according to Abu Dhabi’s The National newspaper, the nude stars of ‘The Hangover II’ walked around on screen oblivious to the black rectangles covering their nether regions. Meanwhile, Iran’s 37 censorship rules largely focus on sexuality. Images of women (close-ups, exposed necklines) their relationship with men (couples alone together, touching or saying “tender words”) as well as nudity of both sexes are strictly verboten. An Iranian site,, shows these rules in action, with screen shots of original film scenes next to the censored versions. One image, of 2006’s ‘Talladega Nights’, shows a wall erected to obscure Will Ferrell in his knickers, another shows Kevin Spacey in bed with a blob that used to be a woman and a third shows a female chest obscured by a wonky CGI vase.

India’s censors have sex on the brain as well. In 2012, they banned ‘The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo’ after director David Fincher refused to cut two sex scenes and a rape sequence, arguing that the material was too “sensitive” for locals in the largely conservative society. But audiences balked, according to the Indian Express, when the Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC) “unnecessarily” bleeped out expletives in Fincher’s last film, ‘The Social Network’. CBFC’s chief executive  blamed Hollywood for not working with the censors. Turns out it’s too busy working with China.

The Red Dawn

This year China has increased the number of foreign films it accepts annually from 20 to 34, providing the extra 14 are in 3D or IMAX. “China’s in the driver’s seat because of the expansion of its market. Hollywood knows they can’t fight it,” says Stanley Rosen, a professor at the University of Southern California who specialises in Chinese cinema. If studios fail to comply the reprisals can be draconian. After ‘Seven Years in Tibet’ (condemned for representing the Chinese military as brutes), ‘Kundun’ (condemned for glorifying the Dalai Lama) and ‘Red Corner’ (condemned for representing the Chinese government as corrupt), Columbia TriStar, MGM and Disney were banned from China and plans for Disneyland Shanghai shelved for a decade. “Hollywood is very sensitive to the fact that China can do whatever it wants, whenever it wants,” says Rosen.

Some would say overly sensitive. Perhaps learning from the prohibition of ‘Red Corner’, in 2011 MGM (after having its ban lifted in 2001) reworked the villains in its thriller ‘Red Dawn’ into North Koreans in post-production after showing the film to buyers at other studios. The buyers reportedly claimed they “couldn’t risk distributing it given the potential blowback in China”. The changes cost under $1 million and saw Chinese symbols digitally altered to Korean ones, two other scenes re-edited and the opening sequence reworked. The film still failed to get distribution in China.

Paramount is seemingly pursuing a China-friendly line too, and recently pulled a similar move to MGM. Without consulting Chinese censors, they pressured the producers of Brad Pitt’s new zombie flick ‘World War Z’ to trace back the outbreak of a zombie apocalypse to a country other than the original China.

“China’s in the driver’s seat because of the expansion of its market. Hollywood knows they can’t fight it”

In May, the studio behind ‘Django Unchained’ went so far as to thank China for censoring them. Despite the fact that director Quentin Tarantino had edited the film’s blood colour and splatter height to accommodate Chinese sensibilities, China pulled the film from cinemas one minute into its debut screening, meaning that paying customers barely got beyond the credits. “The Django debacle sounds like an extreme example, but it’s actually fairly representative of how SARFT (State Administration of Radio, Film, and Television) is when it censors films,” says Jake Newby, editor of Time Out Shanghai, which covers the city’s film and entertainment scene. “The cuts are often really abrupt and don’t take into account gaps in the storyline. The late notice is also indicative of the power of the government to change things on a whim, irrespective of whether it inconveniences people or makes them look bad, and the level of disorganisation inherent in pretty much all branches of politics and business.”

Claiming they had pulled the film for “technical reasons,” Chinese authorities had ‘Django’ back in theatres a month later minus three minutes: one missing scene has Jamie Foxx shooting down a plantation owner’s clan, another is a flashback showing a man mauled by dogs and others show Foxx and his wife being tortured in the nude. “There is tremendous excitement, anticipation and awareness for the film and we thank the local authorities for quickly resolving this issue,” Sony Pictures said in a statement.

Losing the plot

Sensing the appetite for Western films and the cash to be made, Chinese firms have started to invest directly. The money is particularly welcome in Hollywood as co-funded films do not count towards the quota imposed by the Chinese government. A Chinese company injected a record $10 million into ‘Cloud Atlas’ in 2013 and advised the producers to drop 38 minutes of “passionate” scenes before submitting the film to the Chinese censors.

With ‘21 & Over,’ a film about a 21-year-old college student celebrating a debauched night out with his friends, Relativity Media (which is commercially linked with Chinese producer SkyLand) actually shot alternative footage for China. The result is two different films. While most of the world saw a ‘Hangover’-esque gross out comedy in which four students – one of whom is Chinese – go in search of debauchery, Chinese viewers’ impression was of a moralistic tale in which a Chinese exchange student is exposed to the dangers of Western society and returns to China with a new appreciation of traditional values.

“As China’s box office booms we can expect more of the same: one film for Western eyes and another for the East”

But it was ‘Iron Man 3’ that really proved how working with China can pay off. The Marvel film, distributed by DMG Entertainment in China, added around four minutes of footage for the Chinese market. One scene has national star Wang Xueqi playing Dr Wu, who offers to help Tony Stark fight his enemy, the Mandarin (don’t panic – despite the name, the enemy is portrayed by half-Indian thesp Ben Kingsley). Dr Wu then resurfaces, after inexplicably pouring a tall frosty glass of Yili milk (a Chinese brand), as the only doctor able to remove shrapnel from Tony’s chest (with help from his assistant, A-list Chinese actress Fan Bingbing).

According to the Yangtze River Post, the extra footage is “a pointless commercial with lots of plot holes”. Hollywood didn’t care: at an estimated $21.5 million, the opening day of ‘Iron Man 3’ was the biggest in Chinese history. It was not reported how much Yili milk paid for its product’s cameo.

As China’s box office booms we can expect more of the same: one film for Western eyes and another for the East.  Unfortunately, that means losing the big picture in the process. “If you’re taking out a few frames, it’s the same thing as censoring a book if you were to take pages out – you’re changing the artistic vision of the people who made it,” says Dr Stephen Tropiano, author of ‘Obscene, Indecent, Immoral and Offensive: 100+ Years of Censored, Banned, and Controversial Films’. “Movie studios don’t seem to care so much about that.”

Don’t care and, it seems, even openly acknowledge the influence. Last year saw the release of ‘Looper’, starring Bruce Willis and Joseph Gordon-Levitt. It was originally intended to be filmed in Paris, but location shoots moved to Shanghai when a Chinese company paid to complete the movie. This was referenced in the script when Gordon-Levitt’s character  – who is intent on moving to France – meets a man from 2074. “You don’t want to go to Paris,” the time traveller tells him. “Trust me, I’m from the future – go to China.”


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