With the growing importance of international markets, many movie studios are putting an increased emphasis on creating cinematic experiences that appeal to a more diverse audiences. The emerging market of China, with its enormous potential audience, receives particular attention from movie executives looking to increase worldwide ticket sales.
But getting a movie shown in Chinese theaters is often a difficult endeavor – the Chinese government only allows a few dozen foreign films to have an official release in the country. Censorship regulations mean that anything that either contains offensive material, or anything which challenges the government’s ideology, won’t be allowed an official Chinese release.
To take advantage of the Chinese market, many Western movies are actively working to court the interest of Chinese audiences and the overseers who make decisions about movie imports. These changes range from special cuts for the Chinese audience, to drastic changes made to the way movies are shot for global releases.
Here are 15 Movies That Made Drastic Changes For A Chinese Audience
15. Iron Man 3
The third Iron Man movie was always going to be a hard sell in China. While Robert Downey Jr’s Tony Stark is a popular character worldwide, adapting one of his more prominent comic book villains, The Mandarin, had implications for the Chinese release of the film. Marvel Studios worried that an overtly Asian villain would be rejected by Chinese censors, causing the film to miss out on a lucrative release in Mainland China.
To combat this, the movie’s version of The Mandarin bears little resemblance to the comic book villain – not only is the character played by a white actor and imbued with vaguely Middle-Eastern iconography, but the twist reveal part way through the movie removes any possibility that Chinese censors might take offense, by instead turning The Mandarin into a parody of Hollywood’s love for the British villain.
Marvel didn’t stop a neutering The Mandarin, though: the Chinese cut of Iron Man 3 features additional scenes set in China which star some of the most famous Chinese actors, including Fan Bingbing as one of the doctors who operates on Tony Stark.
14. X-Men: Days of Future Past
Speaking of Fan Bingbing, the Chinese star has made an appearance in another key Marvel franchise, in spite of her relative obscurity among Western audiences. She appeared alongside fan favorite X-Men including Iceman, Shadowcat and Colossus in the future scenes in X-Men: Days of Future Past.
Fan, who is the fourth most highly paid actress in the world, according to some reports, boasts an impressive body of work in Chinese cinema and is one of the most recognizable faces across East Asia. While it’s never been explicitly stated by Marvel or Fox that Fan was hired to play Blink in a small cameo in Days of Future Past in an attempt to appeal to Chinese audiences, such a move certainly helped the movie’s popularity across Asia as cinema-goers got the opportunity to see their favorite star share the screen with big name Hollywood actors, if only very briefly.
A movie that does little to hide its attempts to appeal to the Chinese audience, Looper spends a great deal of time in Shanghai, going so far as to show the city as a bright, clean metropolis which stands in direct contrast to the dystopian Kansas City that the main events of the movie take place in.
Shanghai wasn’t the original location chosen for the movie: originally a large section of the film was going to be set in Paris, but this proved too expensive to film. Instead, money was fronted by the Chinese company DMG on the condition that the location be changed to a city in Mainland China.
Looper’s main plot focuses on a subject matter that’s a risky gamble when it comes to Chinese audiences – the Chinese government generally considers time travel to be a subversive concept and it’s very rare for a time travel movie to gain permission for an official release. As such, every effort was made to create a film that the censors would approve of – additional scenes set in Shanghai are present in the Chinese release of the film, whereas most of that action happens in a montage in the Western cut. These changes were enough to award the film an official release in spite of its controversial subject matter.
12. Transformers: Age of Extinction
There’s something about watching enormous CGI robots punching each other that appeals to the Chinese movie audience. The entire Transformers series has proven incredibly popular across China, and with the fourth movie in the series, this popularity was put to good use.
Two large Chinese companies – the China Movie Channel and Jiaflix – got involved with Age of Extinction early in its develop, working in partnership with Paramount to help produce and market the movie throughout China. The influence of these companies can be clearly seen throughout the film, most notably in the portion of the movie which is filmed in Hong Kong.
With such an incredible opportunity to market a popular film to a large Chinese audience comes plenty of opportunities for product placement, a concept which has been the mainstay for Transformers movies since the first live-action film (and indeed the central concept of the entire series, which is primarily designed to sell toys). As such, Age of Extinction features a variety of product placements for brands such as Vitasoy (a popular soy milk drink in Hong Kong) and Chinese Red Bull, which has a very different packaging to its American equivalent.
11. Red Dawn (2012)
The 2012 remake of the classic war movie Red Dawn took some liberties compared to its predecessor. Some of these are logical choices based on the changing political landscape of the world – while the first Red Dawn saw America invaded by the Soviet Union, this would hardly make sense as a contemporary foreign threat in the modern era.
Instead, 2012’s Red Dawn looked to China as the antagonists for the movie – as China continues to operate as a communist country and as the nation’s flag matches its red politics, this appeared a good fit at first. Late in development, though, it was decided by movie executives that the Chinese market was too important for the movie to cast the entire nation as the villains for the film. Instead, all Chinese flags in the movie were digitally changed to North Korean insignias, and the movie was reworked to be a story of invasion from a country that has absolutely no impact on box office sales for Western films.
10. Total Recall (2012)
2012 was a year for movie remakes that worked to avoid offending Chinese audiences – just as Red Dawn’s remake strove to strip away any reference to a Red Menace that might affect sales in China, so too did the remake of Total Recall.
In the Colin Farrell version of Total Recall, the two large communities of the future – The United Federation of Britain and The Colony, are connected by an enormous elevator known as The Fall. According to some sources, these names weren’t the original ideas put forth in the movie. Instead, The Colony was initially going to be known as New Asia, and The China Fall would be the connector between the two civilizations.
It’s believed that the very small changes made to these names were done out of a concern that China wouldn’t appreciate being cast as the ‘Other’ of the future, nor was it believed that the idea of associating a fall with China would be well-received in the market. This is far from the only movie on this list to remove direct references to China for fear of causing offense, paradoxically reducing the amount of Chinese representation that’s seen in American movies.
9. The Karate Kid (2010)
The 2010 remake of The Karate Kid went in the complete opposite direction to movies like Total Recall and Red Dawn – instead of removing incidental references to China for fear of causing offense, the movie places the events of the original Karate Kid firmly in a Chinese setting – even though Karate is in no way connected to China, being a Japanese martial art.
The movie’s title is played up as a joke within the film, with bullies teasing Jaden Smith’s character for his lack of kung fu skills until he’s taught to fight by Jackie Chan. The imagery throughout this movie, which portrays the beauty and vibrancy of Chinese communities, serves the dual purpose of appealing to a Chinese audience and working to establish the legitimacy of Chinese culture in the eyes of a Western audience.
Interviews with Jackie Chan have revealed that many of the crew working on the movie referred to the project as Kung Fu Kid rather than Karate Kid, and the Chinese name for the movie is actually Kung Fu Dream (功夫梦). As such, it could be that instead of a case of pandering to China with a Karate Kid remake, this movie panders to Western audiences with a familiar name – it’s up to audiences to decide whether or not this is a true Karate Kid movie in the first place.
Not all movies gain extra scenes or content for a Chinese release: in cases where content is deemed culturally insensitive, things get left on the cutting room floor.
Such is the case with Titanic, when it was decided that a scene featuring Kate Winslet’s exposed breasts was not appropriate for Chinese audiences. China has maintained a country-wide ban on pornographic content for many years, which extends to include nudity even in artistic form.
James Cameron has spoken publicly about the decision to cut out Rose’s nude scene from the Chinese release, stating that while he felt the scene is important, he ultimately decided that it was more important to extend the cultural impact of his movie by allowing the large Chinese audience to view it.
7. Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End
In fleshing out the world of the Pirates movies, At World’s End goes out of its way to show how various pirate fleets around the world operate. This includes a lengthy period of the movie spent in Singapore, and travelling with Sao Feng, a Chinese pirate captain.
To bring this character to life, notable Chinese actor Chow Yun Fat was given the role – while his appearances in movies such as Bulletproof Monk and Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon have made him a well-known face in Western cinema, the actor’s roots are in the Hong Kong movie scene, which would make him an ideal choice for bringing Chinese audiences to see a Western movie.
Chinese moviegoers didn’t get to see Chow, though – the actor’s scenes were all but entirely cut from the Chinese release of the film. This was because it was decided that Chow’s character was deemed a racist stereotype of Asians, and the Chinese film board opposed showing a Chinese pirate in a villainous role. Sao Feng is hardly a major villain in the movie, but his presence was enough to warrant a severe edit of the movie.
6. Salmon Fishing in the Yemen
While the majority of movies on this list are big budget action films that are designed to maximize profits, blockbusters aren’t the only films that can end up with changes to appeal to Chinese audiences. The 2011 romantic comedy Salmon Fishing in the Yemen, while hardly expected to be a large earner, features changes from the novel that the movie is based on in order to better ingratiate the movie with Chinese viewers.
As part of the story about building a dam in the Yemen desert, audiences are introduced to a group of Chinese engineers who are at all times hard working, efficient and intelligent. This in and of itself isn’t particularly egregious, but the fact that these characters don’t exist in the original source material has led some speculators to wonder whether the movie is throwing in token Chinese characters in an attempt to appeal to the growing Chinese movie market.
5. Kung Fu Panda 3
From the release of the first Kung Fu Panda movie, Chinese filmmakers have been thoroughly impressed with the series. The movie, which is incredibly faithful to Chinese lore, culture and ideology, was the subject of meetings from the Chinese film board as movie professionals asked themselves why China hadn’t managed to create such a high quality cultural product itself.
With Kung Fu Panda doing such a good job of representing China, it’s no surprise that the movie series is hugely popular across the country, which has led financiers in the country to see the series as a worthwhile investment. The latest installment in the series, Kung Fu Panda 3, was the joint result of American DreamWorks and the new Oriental DreamWorks, a Chinese wing of the animation studio which was responsible for much of the animation on the movie.
The Adam Sandler comedy about video games coming to life may not have lit any fires domestically, but it’s interesting to learn how much effort was put into ensuring that the movie had the best possible chance in China.
The movie contains jokes about the destruction of a variety of famous worldwide landmarks, parodying the typical destruction of famous buildings that always occur in alien movies. According to some reports, early drafts of the script involved jokes at the expense of the Great Wall of China – these were removed in order to ensure that the Chinese government didn’t think the film was attempting to portray China as weak, even though a variety of other international targets are also attacked.
3. World War Z
It’s safe to say that there were more than a few problems during the filming of World War Z. The script received extensive rewrites on multiple occasions, and the finished piece bears little resemblance to earlier versions of the film.
With so many rewrites and changes being made, the decision to remove references to China is hardly a drop in the ocean for World War Z, but it’s important to note that among the many concerns that moviemakers had with the project, fear of portraying China in a negative light as the subject of a zombie invasion was something that warranted additional changes to the script.
In cases like this, many commenters have argued that China’s policy of avoiding any negative portrayal has led to actions from movie executives which ultimately hurts the country’s cultural impact, as its presence in the global community is rarely represented in movies that are anxious about not offending the government.
James Bond movies are relatively new to China – considering the British superspy’s roots as an enemy of communism, this is hardly surprising. While recent installments in the long-running series have been granted official releases in China, though, they’ve not gone without some editing.
In the Western release of Skyfall, there are several scenes where Bond defeats men of Chinese origin. These scenes are entirely absent from the Chinese cut of the film – while removing them doesn’t dramatically change the movie, it’s worth noting that similar scenes are missing from Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace. To ensure that all James Bond movies receive approval from the Chinese government, any suggestion that the Chinese people are weak or easily defeated, even by a world class assassin, is removed entirely from the movie.
1. Doctor Strange
The movie which has probably stirred up the most controversy relating to conscious efforts to court China, Doctor Strange has proven a topic of much debate long before the release of the actual film.
Decisions to cast Tilda Swinton as a ‘celtic’ incarnation of the Ancient One, typically a Tibetan character, alongside the choice to move Stephen Strange’s place of spiritual enlightenment and training from Tibet to Nepal, have created significant controversy online from those who argue that Marvel Studios is whitewashing Strange’s backstory to better appeal to the Chinese government.
The sovereignty of Tibet is a difficult topic and one which Marvel no doubt wants to stay as far away from as possible, but the studio’s decision to entirely erase a geographical location and its people for fear of upsetting the Chinese government doesn’t sit well with all audiences. Making the Ancient One a Westerner, it seems, is a small price to pay for a better chance of appealing to Chinese censors as far as Marvel is concerned.
Censorship and self-censorship are common in movies for a variety of reasons. Many people object to the power that Chinese values and ideals have on Western moviemaking thanks to the large financial incentive that Hollywood has when it comes to appealing to Chinese audiences.
Regardless of audiences’ opinions of changes that are made to movies, it’s unlikely that this practice will go away any time soon: until there stops being a financial benefit to making movies at least partially aimed at China, studios will continue to seek out the largest possible audience for their movies.