It is, by now, a truism that China is hugely important for Hollywood blockbusters. It’s currently the second-biggest single film market in the world; by the end of the decade it’s expected to be number one. The Chinese authorities only permit 34 foreign (mostly American) films to hit their screens each year – but those 34 get access to the country’s 1.344 billion people and take about 60 percent of a box-office worth £1.7bn last year. If you include sufficient Chinese elements in your film to be considered a “co-production”, you can take home 43 percent of the gross instead of the otherwise-typical 25 percent. In these straitened times, it’s no wonder that studios are shooting China-specific scenes and sub-plots (Iron Man 3’s Dr Wu had much more screentime in the Chinese cut), or that filmmakers are looking to include Chinese elements in their stories (Joss Whedon told EW in reference to Avengers 2 that, “China is on my radar. It can't not be at this point.”)
Arguably, there’s a nice rebalancing here: Hollywood looking beyond the West and becoming more inclusive around the globe. China’s first in line, sure, but behind it comes the rest of the world; the days when US domestic box-office generally outweighed everyone else combined are long gone. And it looks like we've moved beyond treating China as a Red Menace and towards treating China as a global power worthy of being more than a source of blockbuster villains.
The problem is that China has an authoritarian government with an enthusiasm for censorship and propaganda – and Hollywood’s beginning to adopt their attitude with a little too much enthusiasm. As a rather chilling example, there’s a very odd moment in this summer’s World War Z. An almost-overheard remark suggests that Patient Zero in the zombie epidemic originates in Taiwan. Now this wouldn’t be a big deal except that, in the book from which the film takes its inspiration, Patient Zero is Chinese: a boy is bitten by something underwater in the lake behind the Three Gorges dam and becomes the first of the horde. So not only have filmmakers Paramount shied away from the book’s origin story - for what could, perhaps, be good reasons even apart from wooing Chinese audiences - but they have actively relocated that origin to a historic enemy of the Chinese regime.
There’s something quite breathtaking about that. Sure, the film is about as unfaithful to the book as it’s possible to be, so this is hardly its only departure from source, and sure, the film leaves open the origin of a foreign soldier who arrives at a US military base in South Korea and begins the infection there (he could be Chinese, so maybe there's a little subversion there). But that line goes beyond removing any possibly-offensive mention of China and actively relocates that possible-offense to someone against whom China has a beef. This seems a different and a worse affair to other examples of China-wooing self-censorship. The decision to change Red Dawn's baddies from Chinese to North Korean made the resulting film ridiculous, but at least one didn't get the impression that that was an intentional dig at China's obstreperous neighbour on behalf of the superpower.
You may think that this is all unimportant given that there is no such thing as zombies, but if Taiwan shouldn’t be offended then neither should China. And yet the superpower takes these things very seriously: author Max Brooks recently told us about the changes he was asked to make in order for his source novel to be published in China. "I can tell you that I turned down two Chinese publishing deals because they wanted to censor the book. The first time they said, 'Let's change the name of China to some fictional country'. And it was a very Chinese Communist argument, a sort of, 'Look, everyone knows it's going to be China; you're not hiding anything. All we want you to do is just change the name'. And I said, 'No, China's China, I'm sorry.' Then the second time they said to me, 'You can keep the China name, but we want to take those chapters out of the book and put them online.' I said, 'No, I'm sorry. I know there's a billion of you and if you all gave me a dollar that would be awesome, but China's China and I have to be true to my book."
You might shrug and say that these changes are the cost of doing show-business, but there’s a very big difference between adding some Chinese characters and scenes to a Chinese version of a movie in order to get a tax break, and changing your dialogue to fit the Politburo’s view of the world. If it were only about avoiding offence, the filmmakers could have omitted any mention of Patient Zero and the chances are that no one would have noticed, given that they omitted 90 percent of the rest of the book as well. But here, they’ve actively – and presumably intentionally – shifted the focus somewhere else. It’s an almost surreal inversion of the book’s satire. If Paramount simply wanted to get China onside, they could have found some time and space for the book's heroic Chinese characters like Dr Kwang Jingshu or Captain Chen. We’d expect the latter – a submarine captain who supplies power to an atoll full of refugees before helping to reclaim China from the zombies – to crop up in any sequels. By this rate of Hollywood kowtow, any mention of his role in ending civil crisis or prompting regime change will be abandoned on the pages of the book – and the film will be poorer for it.
By all means, let’s avoid demonising other countries and let’s be fair to China and her people. There may well be cases where looking at things from a different political viewpoint could be positively beneficial: slightly more of an eyebrow-raise at the rampant US militarism of some blockbusters would be no bad thing. But Hollywood can and should draw the line before adopting active Chinese government propaganda as its own, even in fantasy and zombie films. Nobody wants it to turn out that there actually were reds under the bed all along.
tysmuse Posted on Tuesday June 11, 2013, 20:00
Money money money.
MovieMogul Posted on Wednesday June 12, 2013, 07:25
Ahhh, so THAT'S why Looper's listed as a Chinese co-production. I'm glad I didn't know this before seeing the film, would've been distracting.
Cheers for another terrific blog, Helen!
Psycho Savager Posted on Wednesday June 12, 2013, 14:26
This isn't the first time this happened - the Dr. Fu Manchu books and films paused production after the US joined WWII so as not to offend their Chinese allies.
I would only start to worry if Hollywood doing remakes as The Taiwan Syndrome, The Pyongyang Candidate and Big Trouble in Little Tokyo.
Lucky Rice Posted on Wednesday June 12, 2013, 20:08
Really pleased to finally read a blog about this. I used to live in China, and before I went, I had no idea what to expect regarding which films would be widely known and which would be alien to the Chinese. I taught a bunch of high school kids, and I was surprised to discover that Kung Fu Panda was popular. But then again, of course it was! It was an absolute love-in of real Chinese heritage and made it fun and 'awesome', and I realised this was a major Hollywood cash-in. It's been bugging me ever since this realisation that Hollywood has really latched on to this idea, and in the process it's becoming increasingly spineless, and as demonstrated in the above article, it's making a fool of itself. The general concept of capitalisation cinema is my biggest issue with the film industry, but I think the above article presents a serious danger to the quality and content of future films if we allow ourselves to be heavily influenced by the sensitivities of power groups. If I were a director, I'd be enraged it my film had to be manipulated and repackaged into something different just to boost profits. Obviously crews of films mentioned above obviously weren't bothered about this and has no clear attachment to their work. If we want to ridicule and demonise China for its harsh practices, don't simultaneously prey on it just to add a few zeros to the overall gross of your soulless, and clearly malleable, film.
Helen OHara Posted on Thursday June 13, 2013, 15:21
Psycho, I think there's a difference between avoiding offence and offending someone on China's behalf though, isn't there? It's only one line so this particular case is not a huge deal, but it seems like a bad precedent.
BenTramer Posted on Friday June 14, 2013, 01:03
So the Chinese got their way in the end with censoring where Patient Zero came from. Not only are things changed in movies so as not offend the Chinese, movies have been simplified so they play better overseas where English is not the first language. The days of doing complex, dark, downbeat thrillers that appealed to intelligent adults like they did in the 1970s are gone. Studios want a rollercoaster video game experience now for the world's kids to keep the cash rolling in. Even Al Pacino said the movies he and De Niro did in the 70s couldn't be made today and the sad thing is, he's right. Spielberg's right too, the movie industry will implode and the implosion is well under way now.
DubyowEffSee Posted on Friday June 14, 2013, 16:52
Some of these comments are ridiculous. Films have been dumbed down where English is not the first language? Because dubbing and subtitles don't exist.
No more intelligent, complex dark movies? I guess Inception, Shutter Island, Black Swan, Donnie Darko and others all passed you by.
There's this nostalgia factor where we all think films before were better. The situation is the exact same, not changed one bit. You get good films, you get bad films, you get great ones that will be classics. Same as it's always been.
About the article itself. There's always a common theme where when China does something it's bad and when everyone else does something it's OK. A good analogy for this Article is how the US Military is portrayed in movies. If you want access to them and you want access to shots of their planes, aircraft carriers etc. then you need to give them editing rights to how they are portrayed. Sometimes they even have an adviser on location to make sure they are not portrayed in a negative manner. How is this different? You want access to the Military, you have to give them editing rights. You want access to the Chinese market, you have to give them editing rights.
Also the word of "propaganda" here is a bit extreme. Unless I'm mistaken, World War Z is not a documentary. People aren't going to think any more of China because Patient Zero is Taiwanese. On that same note, they aren't going to think any less of Taiwan.
Also it's amazing how people read things and then infer from it. The comment "So the Chinese got their way in the end". At no point in this article does it say that the Chinese Government requested this change. The only example given was for the book itself and Max Brooks, quite rightly, stood his ground.
I say all this but one thing is clear. Sometimes China just needs to take a chill pill and relax about enforcing this image of themselves.
Avengers12 Posted on Sunday June 16, 2013, 12:17
oohhh...and to think Marvel's got an archenemy character named MANDARIN...awkward.
Oli Monkey Posted on Wednesday June 19, 2013, 11:45
Hi Helen, Please state that they'll be Spoilers ahead. I haven't seen World War Z yet and I feel you gave too much away. Otherwise though great blog.
DanTDavies Posted on Thursday June 27, 2013, 11:44
But there is a fundamental flaw in the amendment: if patient zero gets bitten in China, you can easily see how the infection could spread across Asia, Russia and the rest of the world because it's one big land mass. But as it's Taiwan it meets a minor problem: Taiwan is a ****ing island!!! AN ISLAND!!!
Helen is right it does smack of politics - they could use any country they liked, from Mongolia to Korea, but no they chose the one country in the world that China actively hates...