China ‘Shang-Chi’ theatrical release blocked, politics likely factor

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The Marvel blockbuster “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings” has yet to release in China, despite the starring of Hong Kong megastar Tony Leung and extensive dialogue in Mandarin. It’s unclear why the film was not approved, but there are plenty of hypotheses. One argues that the racist origins of the stories have discouraged Chinese audiences. Another concerns an interview that Leung’s co-star, Canadian actor Simu Liu (whose family emigrated from China when he was five), gave to a Canadian media in 2017. Another argues that the films of superheroes, especially Westerners, are incompatible with the “profound transformation” underway in the Chinese cultural sphere. At the New York Times, Jin Yu Young, Amy Chang Chien and Azi Paybarah wrote about the racist 1970s comic book the film is based on (it has subsequently undergone serious revisions):

The film tells the story of a little-known Marvel character created in 1973 – 16 years before Mr. Liu was born – and updated for audiences today. It focuses on Shang-Chi, a young man working as a valet who is reluctantly drawn into his father’s deadly criminal organization known as the Ten Rings.

[…] Shang-Chi comic book readers in the 1970s saw Asian faces colored in artificial oranges and yellows. They saw the main character shirtless and without shoes, spout “platitudes of fortune cookies in stilted English,” the New York Times recently noted. And then there was Shang-Chi’s father in the comics: his name was Fu Manchu and was caricatured as a power-hungry Asian man, an image reminiscent of the stereotypes first imposed on Asian immigrants ago. a century.

“How can the Chinese be insulted like that,” the Global Times commented, “while at the same time we let you take our money? “[Source]

Chinese audiences who managed to see the film overseas or via streaming sites left differing opinions on the film page on Douban, a Chinese review site. Some were touched: “I cried watching him. Others were less impressed: “This film didn’t humiliate China, but the story is so lame…” Another commented that “the costumes and set design are really ugly”. Some have also criticized the actors’ Mandarin pronunciation: “If you can’t speak Mandarin, then don’t. State tabloid Global Times estimated film could fail in Chinese market due to “stereotypes and aesthetic differences between East and West”.

When Simu Liu was chosen as Shang-Chi, some in China criticized him as being “too ugly” for the role. Serious commentators and online trolls have cited different beauty standards for police casting choices and accuse the companies of anti-Chinese sentiment. In 2019, the same year Liu was chosen, Vogue and Zara accused of racism for using Chinese models that did not conform to traditional beauty standards in the People’s Republic of China. Liu’s appearance is only an ancillary matter: more relevant are his comments on the history of the PRC, an always sensitive subject. At Variety, Rebecca Davis wrote about nationalist critique of Simu Liu’s allegedly “anti-Chinese” drink preferences and historical comments:

In the clip, Liu praises a lemon tea drink made by Hong Kong beverage company Vitasoy. He probably didn’t know that two months ago millions of outraged mainland consumers called for a boycott of the company to be “anti-China.” In the context of recent pro-democracy protests, the company expressed condolences to the family of a Hong Kong employee who stabbed a police officer and then committed suicide.

Even more problematic for nationalists is a 2017 interview in which Liu discusses his family’s immigration history in a video celebrating Canada’s 150th birthday, which began circulating on Chinese social media last week.

“When I was young, my parents told me these stories of growing up in Communist China where people were starving,” he said in footage seen by Variety. “They lived in the third world. They saw Canada as a pipe dream, as a place where they could go to be free and create a better life for their child. [Source]

The controversy echoes one that engulfed Oscar-winning Chloe Zhao earlier this year. Nationalists Online uncovered a 2013 interview in which Zhao said there were “lies everywhere” in China. This prompted Baidu and Sogou to limit search results for Zhao and Weibo’s “Nomadland” to block hashtags related to the film. Internet users overturned the ban by reversing the film’s title, calling it “Settled Sky” instead. Zhao’s acceptance speech was also not broadcast on the mainland, but fearless netizens circumvented the ban: One commentator wrote that “with its own actions, China has proven that what Chloe Zhao said was true ”.

With billions of dollars in revenue at stake, Hollywood studios (and some actors) are desperate to avoid Chinese bans on political commentary. John Cena’s clumsy apology for referring to Taiwan as a country in an interview promoting his movie “Fast & Furious 9” is just the latest ignominious example. A PEN America 2020 report, contextualized and extracted by CDT, found that the opacity of China’s censorship regime is “a feature, not a bug.” When people do not know where the lines of censorship are, they will be very careful in self-censorship lest they cross an invisible line. The same dynamic invites preemptive apologies for otherwise factual statements.

It is also possible that Shang-Chi does not align with the Chinese authorities’ vision for cultural products. The major Chinese state media sites recently republished an essay demanding that actors in the film industry “come down to the grassroots and allow workers and ordinary citizens to become the protagonists, to play the leading roles in our literature and our art ”. American blockbusters don’t fit such a proletarianized view, although they may adhere to the hyper-masculine, anti-androgynous tone of recent state propaganda. The essay criticizing the film industry coincides with a celebrity “clean-up” campaign that has also targeted rowdy fan groups. The Marvel fandom is an important but relatively calm component of Chinese fan culture. In a People’s Daily article published on September 2, first reported by Fortune but here rendered in an original CDT translation, Zhang Hong, vice president of the Chinese Film Association, wrote that the film industry must use Xi Jinping’s thought as a guide:

The film industry in our country must promote the dominant values; take Xi Jinping’s thought as a guide; study and implement the spirit of Secretary General Xi Jinping’s important speech on July 1 [commemorating the centenary of the CCP]; ensure that the ideological goal is deeply rooted, ideological convictions strong and ideological beliefs firm; pass on “red genes”; and continue to deepen the sense of political, ideological, theoretical and emotional identity of workers in the film industry, in order to mobilize the unlimited power of the unified struggle. [Chinese]

China’s film censorship regime has now been extended to Hong Kong. At the Los Angeles Times, Alice Su and Rachel Cheung wrote about the forced imposition of censorship on filmmakers and audiences in Hong Kong:

[Kiwi Chow’s] new work was an apolitical tale about a schizophrenic man who falls in love with a psychological counselor. Hardly a scenario that would provoke dissent or violate a national security law. But the public has taken note of the arrival of two dozen police officers. Chow, undeterred, continued his speech.

By midnight, police had ended the screening, fining each participant HK $ 5,000 for breaking social distancing rules. Had the screening featured Chow’s protest documentary, they could have been fined HK $ 1 million and three years in prison, according to a law proposed by the Hong Kong government in August.

[…] “Faced with a government that tells lies after lies, an entire society that lives under lies… I want to tell honest stories,” Chow said. [Source]



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