China Beat: Re-Tooling Hollywood For The Mainland

Kung Hei Fat Choi. As we welcome in the Year of the Snake, it seems the perfect opportunity to kick start China Beat and bring back my regular reports on the industry and box office in Mainland China. Last time I filed one of these, Rian Johnson's Looper was at the centre of some box office confusion, with some poor sap putting the decimal point in the wrong place and declaring the film a monumental triumph in China. While it turned out the film only did modest business, the film does prove relevant once again, as the version released in Chinese theatres was substantially different to the version of Looper seen by the rest of the world.

Earlier in the week, the Los Angeles Times reported that 21 & Over, the upcoming raunchy comedy from the writers of The Hangover, will experience a major overhaul before being presented to Chinese audiences later this year. The film, which marks the directorial debut of scribes Jon Lucas and Scott Moore, is produced by Relativity Media, and is the story of straight-laced college student Jeff Chang (Justin Chon), who is taken out by his two friends (Miles Teller and Skylar Astin) on a wild night of revelry and debauchery to celebrate his 21st birthday.

However, when the film opens in China it will be bookended by scenes that reinvent Chang as a Chinese college undergrad who endures a regrettable trip to Washington State University as a transfer student. While the tone of the original film is one of male bonding, riotous good times and cutting the apron strings from over-bearing parents, the Chinese version warns of the dangers of student life in the hedonistic West and the importance of respecting one's roots and family. Amusingly, lead actor Justin Chon, best known as Bella's schoolmate Eric in the Twilight films, is of Korean descent, born and raised in California. His domineering father, who is pressuring Jeff into going to medical school, is played by Francois Chou, who is half-Chinese, half-Vietnamese, illustrating perhaps that the Chinese producers were not beyond allowing familiar Asian faces to be cast in order to maximise the film's return in Western markets.

In my opinion, there are a number of problems with this kind of product management, not least the disappointment of young Chinese cinemagoers who were looking for a fun, R-rated American comedy like those on which the writer-directors made their names. Had they wanted a Chinese-friendly lecture on the evils of the US College experience I'm sure there are plenty of alternative sources. While I'm sure Lucas and Moore would have preferred their film to have opened worldwide in the same version, they likely had no say in the matter and this acquiescence to Huaxia Film Distribution Co. - who are partly funding the project - will at least ensure that 21 & Over opens wide in China and reaches a large audience. But the film isn't the same anymore, and more importantly tells a very different story to that which the filmmakers set out to tell. In fact, how much of 21 & Over can be tampered with before it can no longer realistically retain the same title? Will it be necessary to clearly label films in the future "China-friendly Cut" as one might today rename a film "Director's Cut" or "Unrated"?

Recent weeks have seen a number of Western films being altered ahead of their China release. Sometimes, as in the case of Sam Mendes' Skyfall, the cuts have been only minor. During a sequence in which Bond (Daniel Craig) follows an assassin to Shanghai, the shooting of a Chinese security guard has been removed. The fact that it was a villain who shot him, and that his nationality had nothing to do with his murder was apparently irrelevant. Later on, the scene in which Bond alludes to Severine's (Berenice Lim Marlohe) history as a Macau prostitute was also altered to hide this fact. Many will agree that while these changes reveal a rather distressing level of sensitivity and denial on the part of China's censorship board, SARFT, they shouldn't detract from audiences' enjoyment of the film.

However, last month also saw the mainland release of Cloud Atlas, the epic three-hour adaptation of David Mitchell's acclaimed novel by Lana & Andy Wachowski and Tom Tykwer. This time, none of the film takes place in China nor features any Chinese characters (although A-list star Zhou Xun does feature prominently), but SARFT still saw fit to excise around 40 minutes from the recognised version of the film ahead of its opening. According to Clarence Tsui of The Hollywood Reporter, the scenes most likely to have fallen foul of the Chinese censors include the homosexual romance between Robert Frobisher (Ben Whishaw) and Rufus Sixsmith (James D'Arcy), as well as a scene in which an android waitress (played by Zhou Xun) is raped by Hugh Grant's restaurateur. Unlike the cuts made to Skyfall, the absence of these sequences will have a significant impact on the overall film and are less easy to justify. Rather than adhering to a fixed code of legal requirements, they highlight the country's sensitivity towards the onscreen portrayal of same-sex relationships and sexual violence, while other moments of violence in the film were apparently left untouched.

My biggest concern with this practice is the way it is treating the films in question solely as products to be adapted and modified to better suit specific markets. They are no longer being considered as pieces of art, or even as storytelling devices, if they are being altered so severely, solely to accommodate the perceived whims of a specific audience. While Cinema has always been subject to censorship, studio interference and even meddling from the filmmakers themselves, these used to be the exceptions rather than the norm, and will only cause confusion for audiences.

Only last week, Hong Kong director Wong Kar Wai took his latest opus, The Grandmaster, to Berlin, where it opened the city's International Film Festival. The film opened in Hong Kong and China back in January, where it very quickly became the most successful film of Wong's career, grossing more than US$50 million, and received mostly positive reviews. However, Wong still felt it necessary to re-cut the film ahead of its international premiere, removing another 15 minutes and noticeably changing a number of sequences. Critics who saw both versions, including Variety's Maggie Lee, were incredibly vocal about how much the changes had damaged the film - a point seemingly echoed by the The Grandmaster's relatively lukewarm reception by the international press.

While I am not suggesting that the reasons Chinese audiences get different versions of The Grandmaster and 21 & Over are the same, there must come a moment when this kind of practice becomes a trading standards issue. Global media-based marketing campaigns drive interest and hype for these movies months, sometimes even years, before they are actually released. Will we see more than one version of Iron Man 3 released in cinemas this summer, one to placate Chinese audiences and another for the rest of us? Is there some guarantee for film fans that the film being relentlessly sold to us is the one we ultimately buy a ticket for? Will reviews for films become irrelevant if they do not refer precisely to the same version the critic and audience both saw?

It seems that more than anything, this practice only serves to highlight the cultural divide, with no interest in celebrating our differences or working towards becoming better informed. Films seen as "different", "foreign" or even "corrosive" to certain countries' audiences are being edited, curtailed or in the case of 21 & Over, manipulated beyond recognition. How is this working towards improving a greater global film culture? Or is 21 & Over simply that bad?