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It was a drama-filled weekend at the Chinese multiplex.
Tencent’s big-budget video game adaptation Monster Hunter was yanked from cinemas one day into its release over a scene local audiences decried as derogatory. Domestic fantasy features The End of Endless Love and Soul Snatcher then took advantage of the breach, pulling in strong earnings of $22.6 million and $19.5 million, respectively.
Directed by Paul W. S. Anderson (Resident Evil, Mortal Kombat) and starring Milla Jovovich, Monster Hunter is an adaptation of the Capcom game series of the same name — which happens to command a particularly strong following in China. Other video game adaptations, such as the Resident Evil franchise, have done huge business in China, and hopes were high that Monster Hunter would do the same. Those projections quickly went south on Friday though, after reports of an offending scene caught fire on social media.
The 10-second sequence that sparked the outcry features Asian-American rapper/actor MC Jin (aka Jin Au-Yeung) saying to a fellow soldier, “Look at my knees.” “What kind of knees are these?” replies the white companion. “Chi-nese,” quips Jin.
The exchange was interpreted by many as a reference to the once common racist playground rhyme used to insult people of Asian origin.
The joke is:
A: Look at my knees
B: What kind of knees are these?
“Chinese, Japanese, dirty knees, look at these.” Was a rhyme used with slant eye gestures to make fun of Asians.
The lesson is:
When you make movies for The World, know The World is watching you. https://t.co/TtII5HNzAI
— Ludi Lin (@ludi_lin) December 5, 2020
The Chinese subtitling only seemed to worsen the situation by suggesting to Chinese viewers that the producers had attempted a failed cover-up. The untranslatable pun was reworked in Chinese as “there is gold beneath my knees” – a reference to an old proverb that implies that men do not kneel or submit easily. The suspected reference to a racist joke — masked with subtitles referencing Chinese male dignity — left patriotic viewers and scores of social media users incensed. Not long into Monster Hunter‘s release on Friday, the film’s social scores began to plummet on leading local ticketing apps. Calls for a boycott simultaneously proliferated on Weibo and WeChat.
By Saturday, cinemas began canceling Monster Hunt screenings amid reports that regulators had issued a directive for the film to be pulled until the offending joke was cut. Several sources at Chinese exhibition and distribution companies contacted by The Hollywood Reporter on Monday said they were doubtful the film would ever be released again theatrically in China. So far, state media have not reported on the episode.
A global effort, Monster Hunter was produced by Tencent, Germany’s Constantin Films, Anderson’s own Impact Pictures and Japan’s Toho. Sony has worldwide distribution rights outside of China, Japan, Germany, Austria and Switzerland, and has set the film for a Christmas Day release in North America.
Capcom, the original game’s creator, was quick to distance itself from the imbroglio by posting a message over the weekend to Weibo saying it had no involvement in the adaptation’s creation but had relayed Chinese viewers’ complaints to the appropriate production companies.
Constantin then issued an apology on Sunday, saying “there was absolutely no intent to discriminate, insult or otherwise offend anyone of Chinese heritage.” The studio added: “Constantin Film has listened to the concerns expressed by Chinese audiences and removed the line that has led to this inadvertent misunderstanding.”
There has been no word yet on whether the sequence will be excised from other international releases of the movie.
The other top titles on release picked up screens as Monster Hunter vacated the scene. Among the beneficiaries was Universal and DreamWorks Animation’s The Croods: The New Age, which earned $11.7 million for the frame. The film has earned $36.1 million in China, compared to $20.3 million in North America.
The weekend’s top title, high-concept fantasy romance The End of Endless Love, was produced by Enlight Pictures and co-written by youth hitmaker Guo Jingming. The story follows a young man (Ruonan Zhang) from another planet — who has the superpower of being able to make people happy with his voice — as he falls in love with an internet celebrity battling autism. Like many of Guo’s commercial vehicles (such as the blockbuster Tiny Times franchise), the film has been savaged by critics but struck a chord with young female moviegoers.
Soul Snatcher, which finished the frame just a notch below Endless Love, is produced by Bill Kong’s Edko Films. The movie tells a fantasy story about a young scholar and a shape-shifting fox who band together to battle mythic creatures and evil spirits.
Hollywood’s next major release in China will be Wonder Woman 1984 on Dec. 18.
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