Uncharted waters

Controversy over map of South China Sea used in new Sony blockbuster


Tom Holland, best known as Spiderman, stars in lead role in Uncharted

Uncharted began life as a popular PlayStation video game in 2007. The premise of the game: a group of treasure hunters travel across the world to uncover various historical mysteries while fighting a group of mercenaries.

Sony first announced plans to turn the game into a motion picture back in 2008 but the road to the big screen was, much like the game itself, arduous and full of twists and turns. Seven directors were variously attached to the project (David O Russell, Seth Gordon and Shawn Levy, to name but a few), actor Mark Wahlberg was cast and then recast in two different roles. 

After a 14 year gestation period, the film has finally made it to the cinema. The lead role goes to Hollywood’s favourite boy-next-door (and current Spiderman) Tom Holland , who plays adventurer Nathan Drake. In the film, we find Drake cooling his adventurer heels as a New York bartender before he is recruited by seasoned treasure hunter Victor Sullivan (Wahlberg) to recover a fortune amassed by explorer Ferdinand Magellan but lost 500 years ago.

Even though the cast couldn’t travel to China to promote the film – going in would require at least a 14-day quarantines – Sony tried to release marketing tidbits to appeal to the lucrative Chinese market. For instance, Holland claimed that his action-packed performance in the film owed much to Jackie Chan. “One of our big inspirations for one of the fight scenes in this film, which is the bar fight, was Jackie Chan using his surroundings to fight people in very unique and different ways,” Holland name-dropped in an interview, also mentioning that there were several other instances, including one in which he jumped from a high ceiling at an auction house, that were also inspired by the Chinese action star.

To further appeal to the Chinese, the film also features a scene that shows a map that adheres to Beijing’s maritime claims. The map displayed in the scene includes the so-called “nine-dash line”, which is used on official Chinese maps to illustrate the country’s claims over the South China Sea, including areas that Vietnam regards as its own territory.

In protest, Vietnam quickly issued a statement claiming that the film will not show on its own screens. “The film was banned from distribution after we watched it and found it contained an illegal image of the infamous nine-dash line,” the Vietnam News Agency reported.

The map certainly did not go unnoticed by China’s eagle-eyed netizens. “In the middle of the movie, when Drake and the others find the treasure map in the cellar, there is a close-up of the map that shows the nine-dash line in the South China Sea,” one noted on Zhihu, a question-and-answer website. “Hollywood really goes to great lengths to make money in China!”

“Because the map in the film was overly accurate Vietnam decides not to screen the film?” another netizen quipped mockingly.

It is not the first film in which a map of the South China Sea has become a point of  geopolitical contention. In 2019, DreamWorks’ Abominable was blocked from cinemas because its use of the nine-dash line caused Vietnam, the Philippines as well as Malaysia to express outrage. Last year, Netflix was asked to drop several episodes of the Australian series Pine Gap because of a similar issue – that’s despite the fact that Netflix is not even allowed to stream in China.

The Hollywood Reporter reckons that commercial considerations trump all else for Tinseltown’s film studios and entertainment industry giants. “Featuring Vietnam’s preferred version of the map would likely have resulted in a major backlash in China, home to a theatrical box office that is nearly 50 times larger than Vietnam’s,” the magazine mused.

Even though Sony appeared to have given up Vietnam for the sake of the China market, it hasn’t really helped the film’s overall box office takings. So far, more than a week into its run, Uncharted has collected just Rmb50 million ($7.84 million) at the Chinese box office. The new Batman film (called simply The Batman), starring actor Robert Pattinson as the new saviour of Gotham City, has surpassed it, raking in Rmb60 million in just three days.

Despite China’s penchant for action-packed blockbuster films, many complained on Douban that Uncharted felt “dated” and “unoriginal”.

 “Audiences who have watched Uncharted will find that this treasure hunt movie too routine. That is probably because it started production back in 2008 but only released in 2022. It feels like the director used the most cost efficient way to make a film: namely, copy-and-pasting scenes from other iconic adventure films we have all seen in the past,” one wrote. “At least The Batman tries to give audiences something new, a different kind of superhero movie.”

Others agreed. “There are no surprises in the film, let alone thrills. Every obstacle just seems so easily resolved. The film says it is a homage to other action films like Mission: Impossible, Indiana Jones and 007, but it just feels like the whole film is a watered down version of all those films. So what’s the point of watching the new one?” a film critic wrote.

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