Cut! That's what may happen to more than a few Hollywood movies attempting to break into the Chinese market.
Though China does not have a movie rating system, like the one instituted by the Motion Picture Association of America, it does have very industrious censors who filter hours of footage, making sure what ends up on Chinese big screens doesn't go against their (arbitrary) standard of what is suitable in China.
Most recently, the Chinese releases of two big Hollywood films, "Cloud Atlas" and "Skyfall," have been altered by China’s government, one more drastically than the other.
According to Chinese state media, movie theaters in mainland China will be showing a version of "Cloud Atlas" that is about 40 minutes shorter than the original. The censors at the State Administration of Radio, Film and Television have reportedly cut almost 25 percent of the science-fiction movie based on a book by British author David Mitchell, which stars Tom Hanks and Halle Berry. According to a report by Xiaoxiang Morning Post, some of the scenes removed from the film contained nudity, which censors believed muddled the message of the movie.
"Skyfall," on the other hand, perhaps stayed too true to the typical James Bond themes of sex and violence. While the movie did well with Chinese audiences, what they were seeing was not exactly what director Sam Mendes released.
One scene that was removed from the Chinese release took place in a Shanghai skyscraper and included the assassination of a nameless Chinese security guard. The short scene is not really a defining feature of the plot, and is hardly a political or social commentary on Chinese security guards. Nonetheless, Chinese censors chose to leave it out. In another scene (1:03 in the above video), Daniel Craig’s Bond character asks Severine, a "hostess" at a Macau casino, about a tattoo she has and its relation to a prostitution ring. While censors left the scene in, with its original dialogue in English, the Chinese subtitles instead had Bond asking about her mob ties. And not surprisingly, references made by the movie’s main villain, Raoul Silva, played by Javier Bardem, about being tortured by Chinese authorites were also removed.
China’s censors also do not discriminate against genre. Here’s a list of movies that span different genres and were cut, or changed, for varying, and erratic, reasons:
1. Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest
Chow Yun-Fat, a Hong Kong-born actor with ancestry from mainland China, played Sao Feng in the third installment of the "Pirates of the Caribbean" franchise. Unfortunately for Chow Yun-Fat’s Chinese fans, Sao Feng, the Pirate Lord of the South China Sea, did not get much screen time at local screenings. According to the SARFT, scenes that were cut included the combat scene in the above clip for “vilifying and humiliating the Chinese.”
2. Titanic 3-D Re-release
What could a movie about two young lovers aboard the doomed Titanic possibly feature that Chinese censors wouldn’t approve of?
According to The Guardian, the 3-D release of the multi-Oscar-winning "Titanic" in China did not include one of the most iconic scenes from the original version. The SARFT stepped in once again and changed the famous scene where Jack, played by Leonardo DiCaprio, sketches a naked, posing Kate Winslet, who played Rose. The scene was changed to just a head and shoulder shot of Winslet, “to avoid potential conflicts between viewers and out of consideration of building a harmonious ethical social environment,” a SARFT official said. Doesn't make much sense? Here's an explanation: “Considering the vivid 3-D effects, we fear that viewers may reach out their hands for a touch and thus interrupt other people’s viewing,” the official added.
3. Men in Black III
China was the highest-grossing market outside the U.S. for "Men in Black III." But what Chinese viewers saw was not exactly what the rest of the world did. According to China’s Southern Daily newspaper, 13 minutes of the third installment of the series were left on China’s cutting room floor. The scenes that were removed took place in New York City’s Chinatown, where a handful of Asian-American bystanders watch Agent J, played by Will Smith, and Agent K, played by Tommy Lee Jones, fight aliens. As a result, the agents have to use a gadget (:08, in the video above), featured in all three movies, to wipe their memories clean of the incident. The Southern Daily newspaper claimed that this may have been a dangerous “hint of the [government’s] use of Internet censorship to maintain social stability.” (And China’s trend of using censorship to cover up censorship continues.)
4. Life of Pi
Academy award-winning Taiwanese director Ang Lee is no stranger to China’s censorship. Perhaps that’s why when planning the Chinese release of "Life of Pi," a mystical story based on a best-selling novel by Yann Martel, he was not surprised that the SARFT had an issue with one of the lines in the movie: “Religion is darkness.”
“They modified the translation a little, for fear of provoking religious people,” Lee said. According to the New York Times, Lee was aware of the slight alteration, and almost sounded understanding.
But as China becomes more and more involved with Hollywood, moviemakers may have to start being more aware of the risk of upsetting the Chinese censor bureaus. For now, Hollywood still has not self-censored movies to fit what the Chinese authorities deem appropriate, but as more movies feature "consulting" by Chinese officials ("Iron Man 3," "Kung Fu Panda 3"), it is a reality that could happen in the future.