In the edited version, Edward Norton’s character, the narrator, still kills off his imaginary alter ego Tyler Durden, but a subsequent scene showing high-rise buildings being bombed was cut. Instead, viewers were shown a text screen reading “The police rapidly figured out the whole plan and arrested all criminals, successfully preventing the bomb from exploding - after the trial, Tyler was sent to lunatic asylum receiving psychological treatment. He was discharged from the hospital in 2012.”
In his new book, Red Carpet: Hollywood, China, and the Global Battle for Cultural Supremacy, journalist Erich Schwartzel, explores the wild relationship between Hollywood and China’s film industry, just how much Hollywood needs China's cash and what they will do for it....
Which, it turns out, includes a frame by frame censorship search for Jamie Foxx’s penis, keeping Freddie Mercury straight, casting Mike Tyson and Steven Segal in a movie about a European cell phone competitor. For this month’s column, Schwartzel also explains how Kung Fu Panda started it all:
Harry Potter is not a wizard in China.
When Warner Bros. executives were trying to get the 2001 film adaptation of the boy wizard’s story into the country, the censors approving the movie had a strange request. China’s film bureau had long looked askance at movies with spiritual or fantastical themes, and here was a movie about an ordinary boy who discovers he has extraordinary powers. The movie could play in China, they said, but under one condition: The word “wizard” must be struck from its script when the dialogue was dubbed and subtitled. In China, Harry Potter became the world’s most famous adolescent magician.
Over the past two decades, similar concessions, tweaks, and censorship agreements have been made throughout Hollywood as the industry’s reliance on China has grown. I spent five years reporting that story. My new book Red Carpet: Hollywood, China, and the Global Battle for Cultural Supremacy, looks at how China became the most powerful foreign government in Hollywood history, and its plans to replicate America’s soft-power success with its own big-screen stories. Heady stuff – but also often hilarious.
China’s box office grew at a clip starting in the early 2000s. It is now the largest box office market in the world, making it all the more important that Hollywood executives do what it takes to get their movies passed by Communist Party censors. At the same time, Chinese filmmakers and authorities have have built their own entertainment industry into the number one box office in the world, and aspire to do what Hollywood did for America in the 20th century: Use movies to sell their country to the world.
But China tells stories differently than America does. Many grew aware of this alternate cinematic reality earlier this year with the viral news reports about Chinese authorities’ editing of Fight Club which was among the baldest examples of how Chinese censors want every movie to achieve a moral equilibrium, and only portray a world where the Communist Party is in charge. If The Silence of the Lambs had been made in China, Hannibal Lecter would have never escaped at the end.
Here are a few other movies – some well-known to Western audiences, others not – that have played a surprising role in the deep and complicated relationship between China and Hollywood.
Kung Fu Panda (2008, dir. Mark Osborne, John Stevenson)
When executives at DreamWorks Animation gathered to brainstorm ideas in the early 2000s, the idea of combining the concepts of “panda” and “kung fu” seemed like a fun bit of storytelling alchemy. Kung Fu Panda went into production not long after, and opened to hit returns in 2008. The story of an overweight panda with nunchucks promptly threw Chinese leaders into an existential crisis.
The movie was not conceived of with China in mind – at the time, China’s box office trailed most other international markets. Yet when China’s Communist Party leaders saw an American company take their national mascot and their national heritage and turn it into a beloved global hit, they had to ask themselves: Why didn’t we think of that? “Although there is no secret ingredient to film-making success, the government ought to relax its oversight,” noted one government advisory panel. Po the panda became the unlikely instigator of a cultural debate that would help set China off on a decade of trying to catch up to the US in crafting an entertainment industry that could win hearts and minds the world over.
Red Dawn (2012, dir. Dan Bradley)
The original Red Dawn is a classic of 1980s Cold War cinema – the story of a band of teenagers who fend off a Soviet invasion of the US. If you watch this 2012 remake of Red Dawn, you may wonder why it’s on this list – after all, the invaders in this version are North Korean, and China is never mentioned.
That’s because the remake was initially conceived, written, and filmed with China as the antagonist. But when Chinese authorities made it clear they would punish the film's studio, MGM, by potentially banning future movies from the market, executives took an extraordinary step: They shipped the completed film to a special-effects firm that replaced every Chinese reference with a North Korean one. The job of swapping out flags and lines of dialogue cost $1 million, but it ensured there’d be no blowback when the movie was ultimately released. When the writers were called in to rejig the script to incorporate this new villain, they introduced a line that sounds suspiciously like they are channelling their own frustrations with the plot twist. “North Korea?” one character asks. “It doesn’t make any sense.”
Transformers: Age of Extinction (2014, dir. Michael Bay)
If you want a case study in the absurd lengths Hollywood went to in order to appeal to the Chinese market, turn to Stanley Tucci and a bunch of city-destroying robots. The fourth instalment in Paramount’s toys-to-screen series was as “China-fied” as possible – a 165-minute example of how desperately studio chiefs wanted Chinese audiences to like them – to really, really like them.
A reality show aired on Chinese TV had contestants try out for roles in the movie, casting four in bit parts. A third of the movie was filmed in the country. Chinese firms inked product placement deals – in one scene, Tucci stress-drinks a Chinese juice box. The absurdity took a darker turn when I realised another choice made at the behest of Chinese authorities: In the final battle scene, as Hong Kong is being destroyed by the bad guys, it is Beijing – and not the US – that comes to the rescue. China wanted to make sure it was viewed as the big-brother benefactor of the province.
That script change would take on a different cast when China’s plans for Hong Kong became clear years later, and a steady absorption into the mainland continued. At the time, though, few noticed – and the pandering worked: Transformers: Age of Extinction made $301 million in China, a record at the time.
Django Unchained (2012, dir. Quentin Tarantino)
Quentin Tarantino’s blood-spattered historical dramas aren’t exactly the kinds of movies embraced by Communist Party censors who like to keep their people living in a perpetually PG-13 world. But when Sony green-lit Django Unchained, the studio thought getting the movie into China would be the ultimate coup, one that would signal to other filmmakers that they had sway few other companies did.
Miraculously, the movie got in. But then Jamie Foxx’s penis got in the way. There’s a scene in the film in which the actor hangs upside-down – completely nude. The scene is dark, and only an outline of his silhouette is visible, but Sony executives had poured over the footage and eliminated what they perceived to be frames that grew too detailed. No matter: Soon after the movie started screening in Chinese theatres, the wife of a well-connected Party member went to see it and called her husband, alarmed at what was there on the screen. The movie was abruptly pulled for further edits, but by the time Sony re-released a cleaner version, Django Unchained was already available on piracy websites.
Skiptrace (2016, dir. Renny Harlin)
When Renny Harlin directed the 1995 pirate film Cutthroat Island, he earned an unwelcome distinction: director of the biggest bomb in Hollywood history. The movie all but killed a career Harlin had built at the helm of big-screen spectacles like Die Hard 2 and Cliffhanger, the poet laureate of the Planet Hollywood set.
Then, nearly 20 years later, Harlin’s agent got a call: Would the director be interested in working in China? The movie was Skiptrace, a buddy cop movie in the vein of Rush Hour, starring Jackie Chan opposite Jackass star Johnny Knoxville. It was the kind of movie that seemed to fit in Harlin’s wheelhouse: the action-with-a-wink that Hollywood had largely abandoned for comic-book adaptations. Skiptrace would take Harlin to China, where he climbed atop a new A-list. When I visited him on the set of another Chinese movie years later, he was as happy as could be, the valedictorian in a class I called the “Hollywood translators.” About a year after that set visit, Harlin traveled back to Los Angeles for meetings. He had cracked the industry’s most critical new market. Everyone wanted to see him.
Wolf Warrior 2 (2017, dir. Wu Jing)
Wolf Warrior 2 is China’s version of the kind of movie Harlin helped ship around the world: the story of the lone soldier who has to go it alone, fight the bad guys, rescue the kid, get the girl. The only difference: Instead of an American like Rambo saving the day, the hero of Wolf Warrior 2 is Chinese.
Wolf Warrior 2 is the story of Leng Feng, a Chinese soldier who must save African villagers from evil mercenaries, including a ruthless American known as Big Daddy (played by Frank Grillo). For American audiences reared on movies about American heroes, Wolf Warrior 2 is an eye-opening experience, a template we know well with one key difference: the U.S. is the bad guy. The messaging is not subtle. When panicked aid workers seek help from the U.S. embassy, they get the answering machine. At one point, Big Daddy warns the Chinese hero, “People like you will always be inferior to people like me. Get used to it. Get fucking used to it.”
“That’s fucking history,” the hero responds, before stabbing the American multiple times in the neck.
The China Salesman (2017, dir. Tan Bing)
Remember how American movie stars used to go overseas and film commercials they hoped their fans back home would never see? Well, China has become that new secret destination. Witness The China Salesman, a 2017 action movie starring Steven Seagal. . . and Mike Tyson. Their fight scenes buttress the story of a Chinese cell phone executive fending off European competitors for a lucrative telecom contract.
The trailer alone gives a sense of the surreal tone this movie takes on, especially when Seagal and Tyson enter the picture. But they are not the only famous Americans cashing in through Chinese movies most Americans will never see. While reporting my book, I attended a party for a Russian-Chinese co-production called The Mystery of the Dragon Seal: Journey to China, starring Jackie Chan – and former California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.
Bohemian Rhapsody (2018, dir. Bryan Singer, Dexter Fletcher)
When the Queen biopic Bohemian Rhapsody was released in 2018, audiences in the U.S. criticized its relatively closeted treatment of frontman Freddie Mercury’s homosexuality. He spends much of the movie with a woman before falling for a guy.
In China’s version, Mercury remained the ladies’ man. Chinese censors, who forbid frank depictions of homosexuality, had scenes of Mercury’s same-sex relationship excised from the film. They went further when it came to addressing Mercury’s AIDS diagnosis. In some theatres, when Mercury is telling a friend of his illness, the sound in the auditorium just dropped out, and one of rock history’s most famous vocalists went silent. It was an example of how Communist Party edits – in this case three minutes of a 134-minute film – can add up to a small part of the movie but have an outsized impact on the story it tells. Or doesn’t, as the case may be.
The 355 (2022, dir. Simon Kinberg)
If you were among the 14 people who saw the Jessica Chastain movie The 355 earlier this year, you may have noticed something odd in the film’s third act. The action shifts to Shanghai and the team of female double agents meet a new ally played by Chinese star Fan Bingbing.
She is the fifth member of their heroine quintet, but she doesn’t appear in many shots with her co-stars. In fact, many of the frames featuring Fan Bingbing’s character curiously film her from the back. The reason: Fan was in government custody for much of the filming of The 355, an A-list actress who disappeared off the face of the earth when authorities discovered tax-evasion infractions that had underreported her salary by millions of dollars. When the authorities didn’t let her out of custody in time to shoot the movie, the production team behind The 355 had no choice but to get Fan in front of a green screen and insert her in the film after the fact. Certainly gives you a new appreciation for the acting skills of the rest of the cast when you realise their scene partner was halfway around the world, out of public view.
Red Carpet: Hollywood, China, and the Global Battle for Cultural Supremacy is out now.