Watching The Dark Knight Rises in Shanghai in 2012, I wondered how the film had gotten past the censors. A leftist was running around a city decrying the rich, inciting a mindless mob to take over and steal individuals’ property, and convicting people without trial in kangaroo courts. It was as if Mao Zedong had come to Gotham City.
I wasn’t the only one who saw parallels between Bane’s revolution and China’s Cultural Revolution, a chaotic time when mobs of students organized into Red Guard units and beat so-called class enemies and fought each other. The description of the film on a Chinese piracy website summarized: “A modern city is on the verge of having a ‘Cultural Revolution’ ignite!” A Chinese netizen wrote in a blog post at a culture website, “It is a miracle this film got through our country’s film censorship system. . . . This film is a living projection of the unrest that occurred in our country during the 60s and 70s.”
All the more surprising, The Dark Knight, which was the precursor to The Dark Knight Rises, had not been allowed into China; that film’s star, Christian Bale, had caused controversy when he tried to visit a dissident in China in 2011.
As part of its broader censorship apparatus, China has tight restrictions on foreign film imports. Only 34 foreign films are allowed in theatres each year (an increase over the 17 per year allowed in before 2012). The Dark Knight Rises did well in China, earning $52.7 million and making China the third highest earning country for the film, but many Hollywood blockbusters earn as much or more in China than they do in the U.S. This was the case for the second-highest grossing movie in Chinese history, Furious 7, which took in $390.9 million compared to $353 million in the U.S. By 2017, China is expected to be the world’s largest movie market.
It’s no wonder Hollywood studios are working like mad to position themselves in the country. They are doing everything from cutting scenes and self-censoring to adding extra China-specific scenes and Chinese product placements, sometimes with hilariously inept results. The Batman franchise is a good example. In 2005, when Batman Begins came out, China was of little consequence to Hollywood. The total box office receipts that year were 2 billion yuan (US$303 million). Batman Begins only made $1 million in China, but it earned more worldwide by itself than the entire value of China’s industry. By 2008, China’s film industry revenue had doubled from 2005 levels, and by 2015, it had increased 22 times to 44 billion yuan (US$6.7 billion).
When The Dark Knight came out in 2008, Warner Brothers didn’t even officially submit it for consideration in China, citing “prerelease conditions” and “cultural sensitivities.” What sensitivities? Some observers speculated that it had to do with the scene where the Dark Knight goes to Hong Kong to catch a money-laundering Chinese gangster, a “sly bit of superhero political commentary,” as one critic wrote. “Batman bringing a corrupt mainland official to justice, perhaps?”
Any filmmaker today hoping for high international revenue wouldn’t think of green lighting such a scene. Today’s biggest blockbusters pander to China. Look at how Transformers 4, which made $320 million in China (outearning its American release by $75 million), handled Hong Kong. When the robots were ready to fight to the death, they drove from Beijing to Hong Kong and saved all the violence for outside the boundaries of Mainland China. They nearly destroyed the city of Hong Kong, but in the film the Chinese central government saves the day. “The Central Government will protect Hong Kong at all costs,” a Communist functionary said, as local officials shouted from the rooftops.
Pacific Rim and Battleship also rained death and destruction on Hong Kong, as The Wall Street Journal’s David Walter noted. And when the Adam Sandler movie Pixels originally planned a scene with aliens blasting a hole in the Great Wall, the chief representative of Sony Pictures in China, Li Chow, wrote by email, “[I]t will not benefit the China release at all.” The scene was cut.
When Transformers 4 came out, pan-democratic protesters were planning on occupying the streets to protest for universal suffrage. The scene where Beijing sends fighter jets to the rescue functioned as a fantasy of what the Beijing central government thinks of Hong Kong. Hong Kongese pan-democrats, meanwhile, think that local government kowtows to their masters in Beijing, who have an outsized role in controlling the elections. If anything, they argue, the central government would be out there to save the local officials from the wrath of the people. “When that part came on, nearly everyone in the theatre with me laughed out loud,” South China Morning Post blogger Jeremy Blum, who watched the movie in Hong Kong, wrote. Craig Detweiler of Patheos went so far as to say that Transformers director Michael Bay “shill[s] for China.”
More formal strategic partnerships with Hollywood might be one of China’s long-term goals for its movie industry. Chinese companies are co-producing more Western films, and China’s richest man, who bought AMC cinema, has said he wants to create the “Disney of China.” Monster Hunt, China’s highest grossing movie in history (and made in China) came to America last week. China’s government has talked about trying to use film to spread soft power.
But it’s hard to cultivate a creative and popular film industry when freedom of speech is so restricted. Good art pushes boundaries. And even things that aren’t inherently political can be viewed through a politicized lens. Stories about the triumph of an underdog can come off as revolutionary screeds to a paranoid, power-hungry regime, for example, which is perhaps why Avatar’s 2D version was pulled early in China.
And China still punishes rather than promotes some of its own best filmmakers. The 2013 independent film A Touch of Sin, by Chinese director Jia Zhangke, won best screenplay at the Cannes Film Festival, best film editing at the Taiwan Golden Horse Film Festival, and earned a 93% score on Rotten Tomatoes. The film was banned in China. How can China ever spread cultural power if it stifles its best artists?