Did you watch the Marvel comics superhero film Dr Strange and wonder why British actress Tilda Swinton stood in for a Tibetan mystic?
Or sit through 2012 action film Red Dawn, in which the U.S. is occupied by Communist forces, and were puzzled as to why the hordes of invaders are, er, North Korean?
Yet in both cases, Hollywood was terrified of offending China, as it was when it interfered with a range of films including Bond movie Skyfall, Mission: Impossible III, Top Gun: Maverick and Iron Man 3.
There are many more — some where the toadying to Beijing is easy to spot, some where you won’t notice anything amiss.
Tinseltown is never normally scared of upsetting other countries with its output, as German and indeed British viewers will well know. However, now the major studios live in dread of offending China.
Major studios in Hollywood now live in dread of offending China. Disney, Hollywood’s biggest film studio, is today squirming over its own embarrassing kowtowing to China with its new blockbuster Mulan (pictured)
The reason is simple: money. China is now the second most lucrative film market in the world and is soon expected to overtake the U.S.
In the past 15 years, its box office takings have increased 35-fold to nearly $10 billion. In 2005, China had 4,000 cinema screens — about the same as the UK. Now it has 70,000.
Its companies are also pouring money into struggling Hollywood studios. But this comes at a heavy price: China chooses which films can be released there and keeps a quota of just 34 foreign movies that can come out there each year.
And authoritarian China offends easily. Its powerful censors, part of the Central Propaganda Department, have to watch any foreign film hoping to be released there. They can even script re-writes, or simply reject it.
Their demands have ranged from the piffling, such as the removal of tattered underwear on a line in Shanghai in the Tom Cruise film Mission: Impossible 3, to the fundamental, such as the editing of the flags and insignia of invading Chinese forces in Red Dawn to make them North Korean.
A 2015 Chinese poster advertising Star Wars: The Force Awakens (right) completely airbrushed out one of the main characters, Finn, played by the black British actor John Boyega, although he appeared in the poster used in the rest of the world (left)
Another shameless example of Beijing’s meddling was last year’s animated family film Abominable, about a lost yeti.
The movie, made by DreamWorks, featured some fairly abominable Chinese propaganda in the form of a map that made out China controlled the South China Sea and completely ignored the existence of Tibet — even though the film is about an expedition to Everest.
Tibet, Taiwan and Tiananmen Square — known in the industry as ‘the three Ts’ — have long been the great unmentionables as far as Chinese censors are concerned.
But the country has started to object to far more and, too often, Hollywood meekly complies.
Aware that Chinese censors can delay a film’s release date by months if they have to reshoot scenes, Hollywood increasingly doesn’t even wait for the Chinese censor to get out his big red pen.
Marvel’s Doctor Strange had Tilda Swinton cast instead of a Tibetan monk
Instead, studios consult China ‘taste experts’ to make sure they get it right the first time and produce a film lacking anything that could possibly offend the Chinese — to the alarm of U.S. politicians and free speech campaigners,
So by the time the trailers appeared for this year’s sequel to Top Gun, Paramount had already realised that the Japanese and Taiwanese flags on the hero’s bomber jacket in the original film might offend You Know Who and removed them.
More and more we are watching films that have been made to please one of the world’s most authoritarian regimes.
This may be good for business in Hollywood but recent days reveal there’s a steep price to be paid for an industry that prides itself on its open-minded, liberal values.
First, a new report by U.S. academics found that Hollywood has been casting more light-skinned actors in starring roles since 2012 — the year in which the Chinese government began allowing more foreign films into the country.
The trend was most marked in action films and thrillers — which go down particularly well in China. Researchers concluded the studios were addressing the preference in China for lighter skin.
The report’s author was prompted to investigate after seeing a 2015 Chinese poster advertising Star Wars: The Force Awakens. It had shrunk the image of one of the main characters, Finn, played by black British actor John Boyega, although he appeared much more prominently in the poster used in the rest of the world.
Then, just days later, it emerged that Boyega had been removed from the Chinese version of a new promotional film he’s made for British perfume company Jo Malone and replaced with an Asian actor.
Disney, Hollywood’s biggest film studio, is today squirming over its own embarrassing kowtowing to China with its new blockbuster Mulan.
A shot from the original movie show’s Tom Cruise’s character wearing a jacket emblazoned with Japanese and Taiwanese flags
The Taiwanese and Japanese flags go missing from Maverick’s jacket in new Top Gun movie that has Chinese co-producers
The live-action remake of the 1998 animated film of the same name took five years to make and cost $200 million. The Chinese folktale about a girl who enlists in the army was clearly aimed at Chinese audiences.
Disaster struck when viewers noticed that in the credits for Mulan, part of which was shot in China, the film-makers thanked eight government departments in the province of Xinjiang, home to the country’s Muslim ethnic Uighur population where at least a million people are in concentration camps and subjected to a ‘re-education’ programme that has been compared to genocide.
Some say the film further demonises this oppressed minority because its villains — a clan of assassins with dark skins and turbans — will automatically remind Chinese audiences of Uighurs.
The sad truth is that Hollywood hasn’t dared to make films likely to offend Beijing for more than 20 years, not since a string of movies in 1997 — notably Seven Years In Tibet, starring Brad Pitt, and Martin Scorsese’s Kundun about the Dalai Lama, both of which focused on China’s 1950 invasion of Tibet.
Stars who have been temporarily or permanently banned from China, either in person or in films, include Harrison Ford (left), Sharon Stone (right), Selena Gomez (centre), Brad Pitt and Richard Gere — usually because of their support for Tibetan independence
The films weren’t even shown in China but Beijing still put their stars, directors and production companies on a blacklist. Kundun was also made by Disney whose then boss, Michael Eisner, proceeded to offer a grovelling apology in person to Chinese premier Zhu Rongji.
Shanghai Disneyland opened in 2016 so they must have got something right.
Of course, Disney is not the only production company with eyes on Beijing. Only recently, free speech organisation PEN America published a withering report about the extent to which Hollywood writers, directors, producers and actors live in fear of being blacklisted by China.
Even films such as Top Gun: Maverick that are far too pro-America to ever get passed for release in patriotism-obsessed China are censored just to avoid antagonising anyone in Beijing, said the report.
Stars who have been temporarily or permanently banned from China, either in person or in films, include Harrison Ford, Sharon Stone, Selena Gomez, Brad Pitt and Richard Gere — usually because of their support for Tibetan independence.
The ban on Pitt may explain why his 2013 zombie film World War Z was never allowed into China — despite its studio, Paramount, expressly demanding the script be changed so the lethal virus didn’t originate there.
Yet for the most part, UK audiences often won’t even see the censorship as studios simply produce a special edited version for China.
Mission: Impossible III cut a scene of Cruise’s character killing a Chinese henchman, while Skyfall dutifully cut the execution of a Chinese security guard, as well as references to torture by Chinese agents — but only in the Chinese version.
Kisses between characters of the same sex are routinely cut, including in Star Trek Beyond and Alien: Covenant, while Beijing’s censors demanded gay scenes involving Queen lead singer Freddie Mercury be taken out of the 2018 biopic Bohemian Rhapsody.
The ban on Pitt may explain why his 2013 zombie film World War Z was never allowed into China
Sometimes, it has been a question of adding scenes. The Chinese release of the Disney-distributed Iron Man 3 contained extra scenes in which Chinese doctors worked frantically to save the life of the hero, played by Robert Downey Jr. They were so out of place that even Chinese critics expressed their dismay at the shameless flattery. In return, the studio that made it got a string of useful perks in promoting the film from a grateful Beijing.
Making Chinese versions of films has the disadvantage, however, of exposing this tinkering. So Hollywood usually prefers just to make one sanitised version for everyone. Hence at least three Hollywood films — 2012, Gravity and Arrival — have all portrayed the Chinese government or officials acting as the saviours of humanity.
Hollywood often does joint productions with Chinese studios (a way of getting round the quota) but these are often even more partisan — witness Transformers: Age Of Extinction in which U.S. officials were worse than useless while their Chinese peers heroically try to save Hong Kong from aliens.
By contrast, when did you last see a Chinese villain? Films which have ventured in those dangerous waters — such as Christopher Nolan’s Batman movie Dark Knight which has a corrupt Chinese moneyman — have found themselves blocked from release in China.
There’s an irony in that as Beijing becomes the West’s greatest bogeyman in the real world, Chinese baddies have almost disappeared in Hollywood.
Other deletions are a tad more surprising. For example, the Chinese government dislikes anything that encourages superstition. This usually rules out films with ghosts — both the 2016 remake of Ghostbusters and the 2006 Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest were barred from China for that reason. (Some whisper that the real reason for the spirit ban is because, in Chinese literature, evil ghosts are a metaphor for corrupt officials.)
They have also long banned films about time travel on the grounds it trivialises history.
And so it always helps keep the Beijing censor happy when China and the Chinese come off lightly in films. Take the example of The Meg, a 2018 Jason Statham thriller about a giant killer shark, which was not only set in China but, as the sharp-eyed noticed, even had the monster ripping the western characters to pieces, while leaving Chinese swimmers alone.
As long as Beijing continues to call the shots in Hollywood, it won’t just be killer sharks that refuse to get their teeth into the Chinese.