Are the Chinese Film Industry Censors Only About Controlling China, or Hollywood too?
People fled to see Todd Phillips’s Joker, which was released on October 4, to better understand the Batman supervillain apart from his other numerous appearances, including Jack Nicholson’s version in Batman and Heath Ledger’s portrayal in The Dark Knight. People were expecting this origin story to have all or at least some of the answers- a diagnostic of sorts explaining why he is the way he is. After having been dazzled by the surprising ’70s inspired theatrical mise en scene but then steadily disenchanted by the lack of a coherent and interesting storyline, I turned to a piece by the wonderful Forbes Hollywood & Entertainment writer, Scott Mendelson, to check-in on the film’s box-office results. And what I came to discover intrigued me more than any retrospective musing I devoted to the cause of Joker.
Regardless of the very mixed critical reception, people around the globe are fascinated by the concept of a movie dedicating its full attention to the king of cinematic anarchy. The tally of Joker worldwide earnings has now surpassed $930 million- Mendelson was right on Sunday when he predicted that the film would probably top $ 1billion at the worldwide box office. This number competes with the likes of The Dark Knight Rises, Aquaman, and Harry Potter and The Deathly Hallows Part II. But there is a crucial difference between the global box-office success of Joker and these other phenomenons. With the release of Joker, China, the most important market in Hollywood overseas box office revenue, was left out.
Hollywood has become increasingly independent of China for revenue. The new unspoken rule for breaching the Chinese market has become: take any necessary precautions to gain access. If parts of a script or a scene are too controversial to pass the censorship committee, edit it or cut it. It is not news that The People’s Republic of China has censored any and all content entering into the country and rejects all content seen to threaten its morals or hold on power; Cutting out movie scenes which do not adhere to party guidelines is a common occurrence. In fact, according to a statistic released last month on Business Insider, under an official quota, China can publicly screen 34 foreign films a year. In general, the movies come from countries with the largest film industries such as the US, the UK, South Korea, and India. Out of this annual quota, the US contributes approximately 85%-90% of these imported films.
There are some Hollywood directors that will submit to the censor demands of the Chinese government, and then there is Quentin Tarantino. His film, “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood,” which largely pleased the critics, was originally supposed to be released in China on October 25 but was removed when he refused to re-cut the movie to fit into the mold of the government standards. The moral of the story: As Hollywood becomes more and more dependent on China’s market, and you are a director who does not have both Tarantino’s clout- his critical and commercial success as well as his cultish fan base- chances are you will have to adjust your artistic economy to fit the demands of Ji Xinping.
But now back to the question of Joker. It has already set the record as the first R-rated film topping the $1 billion mark at the box office, so why not include China, and set the bar even higher? The message of “quasi-fascist groupthink” in the film, as A. O. Scott of the New York Times calls it, and the potential the movie implicates to inspire acts of real-life violence, are elements in themselves highly sensitive to the Chinese censor. But think harder and you may recall the ongoing protests in Hong Kong right now- the protests which strikingly resemble those entertained at the end of Joker. It becomes all too obvious why Joker was excluded from the Chinese market. According to BBC, the Chinese government has now banned protesters wearing face masks, but the protestors have defied this ruling. Similarly, in Joker, after Arthur Fleck, dressed in his clown garb, shoots the late-night comedian on air, the audience observes riots of people (who have somehow acquired clown masks within a matter of minutes) generate a violent protest in Gotham city.
I’m left to wonder if the Hong Kong protests began in April, why China do you need to shield your people from an imagined version of the same sort of political resistance that has already been precipitating in your country for over six months? What difference does it make? Is it only about shielding mainland China from considering the events that are happening in the next state over, or are there other agendas at play?
What concerns me most are the U.S. China co-productions- the movies the U.S. makes mainly to move around the Chinese film industry’s quota system and politically sensitive market. Most of the time the projects implode due to disagreements over either the script or the final cut of the movie. Hollywood does have the ultimate leverage over the cinema of China: technical expertise. However, as the Chinese market becomes a bigger player in regards to the scope of global Hollywood cinematic success, it becomes increasingly possible that Hollywood will make unfortunate filmmaking sacrifices in order to appeal to the Chinese film industry. The last thing I want to see happen in Hollywood is the trade of technical skills and bad movies for money.