Chinese Censors Fillet “Minions,” Shrink “Big Bang Theory”

Discontented with the ending of “Minions: The Rise of Gru,” during which the titular supervillain Gru and his partner-in-crime Wild Knuckles escape arrest alongside three yellow bean-shaped minions, China’s censors gave it a new one. Audiences were instead treated to a slideshow in which Gru renounced world domination in favor of the joys of fatherhood (to his three daughters, in line with the new “Three-Child Policy) and Wild Knuckles was sentenced to 20 years in prison, during which time he embraced his love of acting:

Before its release, “Minions” was considered unlikely to fall afoul of censors’ red lines. It was approved for release over other Hollywood offerings such as “Spider-Man: No Way Home,” rejected after Sony Films refused to cut scenes showing the Statue of Liberty, and “Lightyear,” unapproved due to a scene depicting a kiss between a female astronaut and her female partner. Michael Berry, a UCLA professor and scholar of Chinese film, told Fortune that censors were likely to view Minions 2 as “less of a threat, politically…as a film aimed at much younger audiences.” Nonetheless, censors felt compelled to edit the film. At The New York Times, Tiffany May reported on public reaction to the censorship, which some were able to stomach as the price of access to Western films but others found infantilizing:

Bai Xiaochuan, a 21-year-old university student in Guangxi Province, called the conclusion cringeworthy and ill suited to a gleefully unruly animated comedy. Still, she was happy to be able to see the film at all.

“A lot of movies I was looking forward to watching could not be released in theaters,” she said. “I personally think that the addition of these ‘special endings’ is still acceptable, though just barely.”

[…] A popular film blog, “Du Sir,” said the altered plots in the “Minions” movie, which runs a minute longer in Chinese theaters, and other films were condescending to Chinese audiences.

“Why doesn’t the rest of the world need this extra minute?” a writer of the blog wrote on Saturday. “And why are we the only ones who need special guidance and protection, lest a cartoon has the power to corrupt?” [Source]

Earlier this year, Tencent’s streaming version of “Fight Club” ended with “all criminals” arrested or confined to psychiatric institutes. The cuts were later reversed after public outrage. Nonetheless, the list of films and shows subject to similar censorship is lengthy—“Naked Ambition” and “Lord of War” are but two examples. Censors also routinely excise content they deem unfit for audiences. Gay scenes in “Bohemian Rhapsody” and references to sex and homosexual relationships in the sitcom “Friends” were deleted upon their release in China. Censors also cut cameos by Lady Gaga, Justin Bieber, and BTS from a “Friends” reunion episode due to various past faux-pas: Gaga’s 2014 meeting with the Dalai Lama, Bieber’s 2016 visit to Yasukuni Shrine, and a 2020 incident in which BTS neglected to mention the sacrifices made by Chinese troops while commemorating the Korean War. China’s censorship regime is now being enforced in Hong Kong, where a screening of “Losing Sight of a Longed Place,” a film about a gay man’s struggles in the city, was cancelled after Hong Kong’s Office for Film, Newspaper, and Article Administration demanded filmmakers excise a scene touching on the 2014 Umbrella Movement. American film studios often self-censor for access to China, notably by censoring any mention of Tibet. “World War Z” deleted a mention of Lhasa and “Doctor Strange” recast a Tibetan character as Celtic woman in proactive measures to comply with likely censorship demands. A 2020 PEN America report analyzed Hollywood self-censorship in depth. China’s censors are still unhappy with American filmmakers. In August, the vice minister of propaganda told a news conference that American filmmakers need to show more respect for Chinese culture, customs, and audience habits—even as audiences ridicule the censorship, as reported by The Washington Post’s Lyric Li:  

A senior Chinese official this month told U.S. filmmakers to show more cultural respect, in a rare public remark about censorship after China recently shunned a series of American blockbusters, including the latest Spider-Man film and “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings.

“We hope America can continue to improve the quality of its films on the basis of respecting our culture, customs and audience habits,” Sun Yeli, a Chinese Communist Party vice minister of propaganda, said at a news briefing last Thursday. “We will import from whichever countries that make better films and titles that [better] fit the taste of Chinese audiences.”

[…] The [Minions 2] edit unleashed a torrent of mockery online, with a Weibo post that compiled ridicule of the ending getting some 60,000 likes in 24 hours. Another WeChat blog post received more than 100,000 views before being removed. Film reviewers recognized the attempt to please China — which became the world’s largest movie market by box office revenue during the pandemic — by including Chinese elements such as a dragon dance and acupuncture. But they lamented that the version they got to watch was “condescending.” [Source]

Despite its censored ending, “Minions 2” chalked up the biggest box office opening night for a Hollywood film in China since the onset of the pandemic in 2020, a fact Chinese film industry officials asserted would “increase Chinese filmmakers’ confidence in the fast recovery of the industry.” The Global Times even used the movie as an instructional tool in its “Learning Chinese” section, which featured Chinese translations of such iconic lines as, “​​Who are these tiny tater tots? And where did they get so much denim?”

A deep dive into the mechanics of China’s film and television censorship, from digital publication The Pudding, uncovered broad themes of censored content and revealed double standards in enforcement. By analyzing deleted scenes from the series “The Big Bang Theory,” Manyun Zou, Russell Goldenberg, and Rob Smith found six major categories of censored content, listed in descending frequency: sex, LGBTQ+ themes, disrespect towards China or allies such as North Korea or Russia, illegal activities, religion, and addiction. The analysis also found double standards applied to foreign media. For example, a six-second kissing scene was cut from “The Big Bang Theory,” whereas a 42-second kissing scene in the Chinese drama “Because of Love” somehow passed muster. Similar inconsistencies were found regarding censors’ reactions to depictions of naked backs or the killing of animals. Notably, the cuts to the show were retroactive: “The Big Bang Theory” originally streamed in China without major cuts. The principal author of the report, Manyun Zou, only noticed the changes upon a rewatch in 2022. The authors of the report also explained the most likely reason for these censorship inconsistencies: 

Since China hasn’t built a video rating system, the removal of such content is always justified by reasons involving children — children shall be exposed to “main melody” so that they can grow up in a healthy way. “Main melody” is an informal name for productions that fit into patriotic or pro-Communist Party themes.

[…] Such unequal treatment is bizarre. According to the governmental guidelines, imported productions have only one more forbidden content category to consider than national ones — the imported productions must not show anything that would do harm to minors’ physical and mental health. The remaining forbidden content types, including nudity, violence, and promoting the negative parts of society, are the same for national and imported productions.

As there are no legal roots, this may come down to self-policing by Chinese companies, who actually make the cuts and seek official approval before releasing the show. The self-policing can be rather relaxed, but that may result in multiple rounds of months-long scrutiny. [Source]

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