Back in May, when the original English report came out that China had censored Men In Black 3, it put the amount of cut material at 13 minutes.* A day later, when the Los Angeles Times picked up the story, the amount of censored material was revised to "at least three minutes." But too late, everyone from E! to HuffPo had taken the story and run, the latter joking, "there could be a silver lining to the 'Men In Black 3' censorship: by cutting 13 minutes out of the film, Chinese theaters can screen the movie more times per day."
Twelve days later, the L.A. Times ran a much-linked-to feature titled "Hollywood gripped by pressure system from China." Its subhead: "To appease China and gain access to moviegoers and financing, movies include positive references to the nation (no Chinese villains!) and face censorship." (!)
"Appease." It just sounds so… dirty. But what it boils down to is that China is using its economic power to end Hollywood's century-long stereotyping of China and Chinese people. (Villainously?)
The L.A. Times' piece on China's "pressure system" begins with an anecdote about how, in the recent high-profile action film Battleship, "it is the Chinese authorities in Hong Kong whom Washington credits with delivering the early proof that these invaders aren't exactly homegrown."
It immediately follows this observation by pointing out that in the comedy Salmon Fishing in the Yemen, "Chinese hydroelectric engineers showed off their know-how; the original book included no such characters."
These examples, the piece concludes, reflect "conspicuously flattering or gratuitous additions" of references to the "Middle Kingdom" (shudder) meant "to satisfy Chinese business partners and court audiences in the largest moviegoing market outside the U.S."
Now, if adding some Chinese engineers to the background of a film about a white Brit in Yemen is a gratuitous addition, one wonders how the Times would characterize the substitution of a white Brit in place of Jeff Ma, the real Chinese-American protagonist at the center of the movie 21? And what would the Times make of how the upcoming remake of Total Recall credits "Chinese physicist Xhu Lin" with the invention of the "Xhu-9 Synchropator," the technology that allows for implanted memories? Chinese scientists and engineers? Crazy.
The Times immediately moved to note that these two instances of adding Chinese characters who know science (villains!?) isn't the only pressure China is putting on Hollywood, but also, "Chinese bad guys are vanishing—literally."
As an example, the article pointed to the 2010 remake of Red Dawn, which featured a brutal invasion and occupation of America's west coast by China. The movie was shelved and then—in a move that is quite literally the embodiment of the old "they all look the same" mantra—China's army was digitally reworked to be North Korea's, a nation that apparently has no such "pressure system." Red Dawn is now set for a November 2012 release.**
The idea that Chinese villains are "disappearing" in Hollywood forces a questions about what exactly it means to "disappear." The Dark Knight, Tomb Raider 2 and Spy Game are just three blockbusters from the last decade or so that feature America's biggest stars fighting Chinese villains. The Departed, a film adopted from a Chinese original, used Chinese villains to make the villains at the center of the film seem less villainous. It was nominated for five Oscars and won four of them.
Funny then that Men in Black 3, the very film that launched the most recent discussion of China's film policy, features a bunch of "Chinese" villains. The scenes that underwent cuts in China feature alien villains disguised as Chinese restaurant workers.
So which is it? Is Hollywood no longer looking to central casting for villains, or is China's brutal censorship system cutting them out?
Right from the first Telegraph piece, reports on the MIB3 cuts have focused on the removal of a short scene where a crowd of Asians has its memory erased by Smith and endorsed speculation—originally credited to by China's "Southern Daily" newspaper—that "This could have been a hint on the use of internet censorship to maintain social stability,"
This narrative is great for two reasons. First, it fits perfectly into westerners' idea of a paranoid freedom-crushing Chinese Communist authority—the kind that led the producers of the Red Dawn remake to choose China as an invading country in the first place.
Not that Chinese authorities aren't often paranoid, but this game of "find the insult" is never ending. If China were that cautious about suggestive scenes and plot points, why would it have allowed the release this June of The Hunger Games, a tale about children from the peasantry killing each other for the amusement of overindulged, ostentatious rulers in the nation's capital? (Though it was initially given a release date, Hunger Games was “delayed indefinitely” in Vietnam.) Why would they have allowed the release last summer of Kung Fu Panda 2, a film that opens with a pack of villains going to from village to village and violently collecting all the metal to be melted down at the behest of their megalomaniac leader, a spooky echo of the disastrous policies of the Great Leap Forward.
And if China is really that attentive to such suggestive detail, why would it allow, this month, the release of The Lorax, a cautionary tale about environmental destruction in the name of capitalism?
The other reason the paranoid China narrative focused primarily on the memory-erasing scene is how conveniently it shifts attention away from Hollywood's horrible stereotyping of Chinese people. Yet the bulk of the cut scenes do just that.
In one removed scene, Tommy Lee Jones tortures "Mr. Wu" for information by repeatedly punching him in the face with a spiked alien fish. See, somewhere in his preposterously stereotypical Chinatown restaurant, Mr. Wu is harboring the film's primary bad guy. (Many may recognize the actor playing Mr. Wu, Keone Yeoung, from his previous work on HBO's "Deadwood," where he was, yes, "Mr. Wu.")
The film screened in China exorcises most of Mr. Wu's torture (which is exactly what it is), as well as a scene where a Chinese female (villain) tries to take out Will Smith and another scene where Tommy Lee Jones pretty much beats a "Chinese" alien to death with a frying pan. For anyone with any perspective into modern China, the whole scene is an uncomfortable reminder of that nation's still fragile psychological relationship with foreign powers. In fact, since other Neurolizer mind-wiping scenes were left in MIB3, it's far more likely relevant Chinese censors were concerned that it was foreigners doing the mind-wiping, and not some suggestion about China censoring Weibo.***
Of the cuts, Kevin Ma, an Asian film industry observer and writer for LoveHKFilm.com, told me, "There are also as many fair-minded people in China as there are easily [insulted ones], and some netizens do see past the pandering and also doubt this lack of self-confidence. Nevertheless, it would appear that the charge of 'hurting the feelings of the Chinese people' is mainstream and here to stay, so there will be some effects as long as studios want to pander to China."
None of the MIB3-inspired examinations of China's influence on Hollywood bothered to mention that many of the major studios are currently under investigation by the Securities and Exchange Commission for illegally bribing Chinese officials for access to theaters and locations (villains!).
When American TV networks cut scenes it's "edited," and when China does it it's "censored." When Hollywood adds Hispanic characters and shies away from Mexican stereotypes, it's catering to a growing demographic. When it changes the artistic integrity of Transformers 2," Battleship, and—upcoming Chinese-financed, future Criterion Collection standout-—Iron Man 3, it's "gripped" by a "pressure system."
Transformers, Iron Man and Battleship are all three franchises that gave the U.S. military script oversight in exchange for cooperation. Was it a "pressure system" that "gripped" director Peter Berg when he cut a character from "Battleship" because the Navy thought a sailor looked too fat?
The good news is that there appears to be a solution to appease both China and Hollywood. Not only is China buying more tickets to Hollywood movies, but also China is increasingly funding those movies, resulting in "China cuts" of films. One of the biggest hits of 2011, the remake of The Karate Kid, was financed partly by China . In the version shown in the U.S., the young African-American kid from Detroit is set upon by a innately malicious gang of kung fu thugs from Beijing. In the version shown in China, the Chinese bad guys are less bad, more three-dimensional.
Then there's Looper. After securing much needed financing from Chinese backer DMG, the upcoming Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Bruce Willis sci-fi film added Shanghai as a shooting location. Those scenes were scrapped for the version that will be seen America, but as the L.A. Times noted, the Shanghai footage "is being added back into the Chinese version." Keeping the scenes came at the insistence of China's DMG, a media agency founded and run by a New Yorker.
* Oddly enough, despite many later reports, including the L.A. Times', The Telegraph story has not been corrected and still reports that MIB3 had been cut "by 13 minutes to remove all Chinese baddies from the film."
** One "vanished" Chinese bad guy that is never mentioned alongside the Red Dawn example is the Chinese invaders from the recent THQ video game Homefront. Originally set in an America occupied by Chinese forces, the game changed to focus on an invading Asian conglomerate led by, yes, North Korea. Explaining the switch of enemy, an executive with THQ said the Chinese were "just not that scary."
*** Ironically, Wiebo, the Twitter-like China microblog, is where reports of MIB3's cut scenes first popped up. In an even greater instance of irony, uncut versions of MIB3—selling for 5 yuan ($0.84)—were available on the street on pirated DVD days after the film's China release. Meanwhile, ticket prices for the 3D version of the film in Shanghai were around 90 yuan ($15).
Related: The East is Drunk: Hammered and Sickled in China
Abram Dylan is the pseudonym of a journalist who writes about China. He can be contacted here.