Chinese takeaway

Chinatown scenes get cut from Will Smith blockbuster by Beijing’s censors

Chinese takeaway

Galaxy defenders: Will Smith, Nicole Scherzinger and Josh Brolin

When the first Men in Black film was released 15 years ago, it wasn’t even shown in China. That’s not because moviegoers weren’t ready to be enthralled by Will Smith’s wisecracking Agent J or the drier wit of his colleague Agent K, played by Tommy Lee Jones. More it was due to the science fiction genre being off-limits as far as movie regulators were concerned. Sony, the studio behind the MIB franchise, didn’t even bother submitting its sequel for approval in 2002.

Since then, of course, the official mood has softened slightly and more Hollywood films have been granted Chinese viewings. Men in Black 3 is one of those on the list and it has been doing very well, raking in $25 million in its first three days. That made it the second biggest opening weekend in China this year after Titanic 3D’s $58 million April debut.

Nevertheless, Chinese audiences are still being treated to a slightly different MIB to that being shown in other parts of the world.

According to the Daily Telegraph, the censors took out at least 3 minutes of footage, primarily scenes set in New York’s Chinatown, where aliens are disguised as restaurant staff. At the end of the scene the agents “neuralyse” (wipe the memory) of a crowd of Chinese bystanders who have witnessed a gunfight. Although the reasons for the cuts have not been revealed, Southern Daily reckons that the footage might have touched a raw nerve: “This could have been a hint at the use of internet censorship to maintain social stability,” it surmised.

The LA Times reports that Sony executives, the studio behind the blockbuster, only learned of the government’s objections after the film had been completed. But most netizens are baffled by the deletions, regarding the omitted scenes as harmless humour and in no way a smear on China’s image.

Others say the move suggests that authorities still lack confidence in the maturity of the country’s filmgoers. The micromanaging style is hardly new. Scenes in Mission: Impossible 3 featuring laundry hanging out in Shanghai were also cut (too parochial for a global financial capital, apparently), while Chow Yun-Fat’s role in Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End was edited out of China screenings completely (pillaging pirates of Chinese origin don’t sit well with the censors either).

More recently, the blockbuster Battleship also blinked red on the regulatory radar, when censors removed scenes in which an alien spaceship crashes into Hong Kong’s iconic Bank of China Tower. They were less bothered by the destruction of other Hong Kong landmarks, which made the final cut.

This all looks pretty ridiculous to the outside eye, and it’s hard not to laugh at the regulator’s sensitivities. But they also present a problem for the studios. “The list of taboos is so long it is very often too difficult to make anything entertaining,” says Robert Cain, the author of industry blog ChinaFilmBiz. “I had a friend submit a script and the censors asked him to change the name of one of the characters. He could not understand why so he asked them and they said it was the pet name that Deng Xiaoping (China’s former paramount leader) used for his granddaughter.”

But here’s a general rule of thumb for getting the green light: “Unless there is a flattering image of Chinese people, you are going to run into a challenge from the State Administration of Film, Television and Radio (SARFT),” Cain says.

But it wasn’t just (the lack of) Chinatown that got Chinese audiences talking about Men in Black 3. Another source of ‘controversy’ was served up for the netizen community courtesy of gizmo website iGeek. It made a fuss last week that there was “ironclad” evidence that the film had pinched the idea for its futuristic monocycle from a Chinese invention.

The site showed pictures of a bike apparently designed by a Chinese inventor from Qingdao in 2007.

Many were unconvinced by iGeek’s accusation, highlighting that the first one-wheeled cycle was invented much earlier – in 1932 by JA Purves (the design never caught on).

“This kind of vehicle has been around for a long time,” one netizen wrote on Sina Weibo. “Just go look at the sci-fi films from a few decades ago… [the Chinese cycle maker] should consider himself lucky for not being sued for infringement himself.”

An alternative solution for MIB producers in dealing with iGeeks and the other critics? Reach for the “neuralyser” immediately…

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