'Bohemian Rhapsody' Gets Surprise Permission for China Release

Alex Bailey/Twentieth Century Fox
'Bohemian Rhapsody'

Many local industry observers had thought the film would be blocked because of Beijing's past repressive handling of content involving gay characters.

20th Century Fox's smash hit Freddie Mercury biopic Bohemian Rhapsody received permission Wednesday to open theatrically in China.

The decision came as something of a surprise to the country's local film industry given Beijing's past repressive stance on content featuring gay characters.

At the same time that news of Bohemian Rhapsody's release clearance was circulating through China's film industry, outcry over a local streaming company's censorship of the words "gay man" from Rami Malek's Oscars acceptance speech was raging on social media. 

Bohemian Rhapsody's censorship approval in China indeed comes with some caveats.

No release date has yet been set, but a source with knowledge of the import plans at China Film Group tells The Hollywood Reporter the movie is expected to open sometime in mid-March. 

Sources also tell THR that at least one minute of cuts will be made to the film, removing portrayals of drug use and several intimate kisses between Malek's Mercury and other male characters. 

Unlike in most major markets, where Bohemian Rhapsody was a huge commercial success, the film will only be getting a limited release in China, courtesy of the National Alliance of Arthouse Cinemas (NAAC), a public-private initiative run by the state-supported China Film Archive and a consortium of commercial theater chains.

The NAAC was formed in 2016 as an effort to cultivate art cinema in China by reserving screens for prestige titles within the country's scores of multiplexes. The NAAC now extends to some 1,200 movie screens — out of China's 50,000-plus screen total. Some of the most successful imported titles to release through the system were 2018's Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri and last year's Cannes Palme D'or winner Shoplifters, which earned $10.3 million and $14 million, respectively.

Considering how Bohemian Rhapsody was panned by critics, but embraced by the market, "art house" would seem an odd classification for the film. THR's sources say the limited release plan was arrived at as something of a compromise from China's Film Bureau. If Bohemian Rhapsody proves a commercial hit during the early days of its limited run, however, theater operators may well expand its screen count — there will be no go-to mechanism of restriction once it's already in cinemas. 

China's stance on gay content has been inconsistent over the years. Multiple Oscar-winner Brokeback Mountain (2005) was denied a release, despite director Ang Lee's star status in the country. Gay-themed content also has been routinely blocked from television and streaming services. And yet, the brief but widely discussed "gay moment" in Disney's live-action Beauty and the Beast was allowed to run uncensored in cinemas in 2017 (Beijing authorities even highlighted their tolerance on that occasion, with Communist Party mouthpiece The People’s Daily,  tweeting: "Controversial gay moment kept in Disney's #BeautyAndTheBeast ... requires no guidance for minor audience"). That same year, however, Michael Fassbender's much-touted gay kiss (with himself), was excised from Fox's Alien Covenant