Pudgy and putrid little Kim Jong-un must be swelling with pride. With the FBI now concluding that North Korea was responsible for the recent computer hacking of Sony Corporation, it appears that Kim has succeeded in projecting power beyond his borders in, essentially, censoring a Western film. That work, of course, is The Interview, the Columbia Pictures action comedy portraying the rotund dictator in a negative light.
Many have castigated Sony — Columbia’s parent company — for capitulation. Pundit Linda Chavez likened the behemoth’s folding to Barack Obama’s normalization of relations with Cuba, writing that the two of them “are on the same page when it comes to appeasing dictators.” Political maven Newt Gingrich tweeted, “With the Sony collapse America has lost its first cyberwar. This is a very [sic] very dangerous precedent.” And both may be correct. Nonetheless, there is something certainly not unprecedented: Hollywood’s appeasement of dictatorial regimes.
Most movie-goers don’t know it, but many of the films on which they spend American dollars have been filtered by Chinese censors — by Beijing’s powerful State Administration of Radio, Film and Television (SARFT), to be precise.
That’s the stick. The carrot is China’s lucrative market, now the world’s biggest after recently ousting the United States from the number-one spot. And together they amount to economic blackmail.
How effective is it? Well, ironic given current events, did it ever strike you as odd that the invaders in the 2012 remake of the 1984 film Red Dawn were from small, third-rate power North Korea and not, oh, let’s say, from what could be the next evil empire, China? It should.
Because when Red Dawn was originally shot, the invaders were Chinese.
The studio creating the film, MGM, digitally altered the movie in 2011 to make them appear as North Koreans.
As you might imagine, this goose-stepping to Beijing’s tune is common now. As the Los Angeles Times wrote in 2012:
Chinese bad guys are vanishing — literally. Western studios are increasingly inclined to excise potentially negative references to China in the hope that the films can pass muster with Chinese censors and land one of several dozen coveted annual revenue-sharing import quota slots in Chinese cinemas.
… When Sony’s “Men in Black 3” was released in China last month, censors had the studio remove or shorten several scenes set in New York’s Chinatown that they believed depicted Chinese Americans unflatteringly.
… “Hollywood these days is sometimes better at carrying water for the Chinese than the Chinese themselves,” said Stanley Rosen, director of the East Asian Studies Center at USC and an expert on film and media. “We are doing all the heavy lifting for them.”
A screenwriter on another Hollywood tentpole was told by the studio to steer clear of any Chinese villains in shaping his script.
… “It’s a clear-cut case — maybe the first I can think of in the history of Hollywood — where a foreign country’s censorship board deeply affects what we produce,” said a leading Hollywood producer….
Oh, and don’t ask that producer’s name — or that of many others interviewed for the L.A. Times story. They’d only speak under the condition of anonymity.
They were afraid of offending Chinese business interests.
And Chinese good guys are appearing to take the bad guys’ places. For instance, while Sony’s Columbia Pictures is now caving to the North Koreans, it had already kowtowed to the Chinese: In its disaster film 2012, it was by design that the White House chief of staff sang the Chinese’s praises, lauding them as visionaries. Then there was British picture Salmon Fishing in the Yemen; while it portrayed Chinese engineers flexing their technological muscle, the book on which the movie was based had no such characters.
Some also might have noticed the increasing number of references in today’s films to the “Middle Kingdom.” A translation of the Mandarin word Zhongguo, a Chinese name for China, the term’s inclusion is no accident: It’s a way of advancing Chinese culture.