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A version of this story first appeared in the Oct. 30 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
After Crimson Peak‘s tepid $13.1 million North American debut, producer Legendary Pictures probably is hoping for a big recoup in China, as happened in 2013 when director Guillermo del Toro‘s Pacific Rim grossed $113 million there, salvaging its underwhelming stateside performance.
Both del Toro’s track record in China and recent buzz around Crimson Peak on Mtime and Douban, two of China’s most popular movie discussion sites, indeed suggest the film might do well there.
But the gothic romance, which hasn’t secured a China release, could run into problems because of supernatural elements that might violate one of the China Film Bureau’s more bizarre dictates — what one might call a “no-ghost protocol.”
Stemming from the Communist Party’s secular ideology, China’s official censorship guidelines prohibit films that “promote cults or superstition.” China censors have used the provision as rationale for banning or demanding cuts to films that present ghosts or supernatural beings in semi-realistic fashion (exceptions are made for stories based on Chinese mythology).
In 2006, Disney’s Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest was banned because of scenes involving ghosts and cannibalism (the next Pirates squeaked through after cuts were made). Crimson‘s entire premise — a young bride (Mia Wasikowska) who can commune with the dead seeks to learn more about the ghosts that haunt her husband’s home — would seem to violate China’s guidelines. But by that standard, so might next summer’s Ghostbusters.
Chinese filmmakers have been known to employ inventive, if inadvertently amusing, plot devices to work around the no-ghost policy — deus ex machina as censorship dodge. Consider local horror hit The House That Never Dies, which grossed $65 million last year. Inspired by a well-known, purportedly haunted, house in the Chinese capital, the film follows a woman tormented by ghosts in her historic Beijing mansion — so far, unprecedented for modern Chinese cinemas. But then a final act reveals that all of the foregoing ghostly encounters have simply been hallucinations, because the heroine was secretly dosed with LSD. Other Chinese genre directors have used curtain-closing revelations of mental illnesses, bad dreams or hypnosis to skirt the rules.
Legendary is in the unenviable — but increasingly familiar — position of having to play wait and see what China decides. Ghostbusters director Paul Feig, meanwhile, might be writing an alternate Chinese ending where Bill Murray wakes up from a weird dream in which he was Kristen Wiig.
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Tracee Ellis Ross