Censorship committee goes sour on 'Hour'

HONG KONG — “Rush Hour 3,” with its clueless cops and international star Jackie Chan, seems like an unlikely political football.

But Asia is abuzz with talk of the slapstick comedy being slapped with a rumored ban in mainland China — even though star Chan is one of China’s favorite sons.

The Film Bureau, the body that oversees the release approval procedure, told Variety the pic is still being considered by the censorship committee, and insisted it has not been banned.

But sources close to the film and other distributors in the region say Chinese censors will likely not greenlight a theatrical outing in China.

The problem is apparently a scene featuring a Chinese organized crime family that Chan and Chris Tucker’s characters take on during a visit to Paris. With Triad dealings so central to the plot, authorities possibly much higher than the Film Bureau have apparently decided the pic is fundamentally anti-Chinese and are not offering filmmakers a chance to recut.

Making the squabble more interesting is that Chan’s JC Group owns the pic’s rights in Hong Kong and China as part of the star’s back-end deal with producer New Line Cinema.

Hong Kong-based distrib Edko Films, which releases the pic in China under a deal struck directly with New Line, insists the content will not be a problem. “China has seen this kind of stuff before,” Edko chief Bill Kong says.

Kong, who is one of the most politically astute operators in China and last year replaced UIP as Universal’s distributor of choice in the mainland, managed to release the two earlier installments of the “Rush Hour” franchise, despite Triad themes in the stories. “I’m certain it will get a release,” he says.

But the whispering campaign surrounding “RH3″ highlights a number of politically sensitive issues.

First, China doesn’t want to be seen banning things while it is in the middle of a trade dispute with the U.S. over market access. Urged on by the Motion Picture Assn., Washington this year started two sets of World Trade Organization proceedings against China. The U.S. argues that China is not doing enough to protect entertainment industry intellectual property from video and online pirates. Second, it argues China is illegally restricting market access for entertainment properties, and by doing so encourages piracy.

Chinese authorities and the rights owners can all save face and claim that rather than being banned, the pic simply did not make it onto the shortlist of 20 foreign films per year that qualify for major “revenue sharing” release in China each year. (With so few films actually being allowed import license, “banned” is a term used much too loosely.) But if the film were allowed to fall at the quota hurdle, it would be an untimely reminder by the Chinese that its doors are closely guarded.

Second piece of politics concerns piracy. If the Film Bureau were to immediately pass the film for release, it is difficult to see how it could catch up with the Stateside bow, set for Aug 10.

Even a belated approval may not allow Chan or Edko chance to enjoy much economic benefit. Video pirates will likely import illegal camcorded copies within days of the U.S. release. Theatrical releases with Chinese subtitled prints in Singapore on Aug 9 and Hong Kong on Aug 16 will potentially make their crookery easier still.

Third area of awkwardness concerns Chinese determination to ensure that local pics have a predominant share of the box office.

“The problem is not the Film Bureau, it is (state-run distributor) China Film. The schedule is very congested, and American films are doing very well around the world this year,” Kong says. In China especially, that’s an understatement.

Chinese authorities manage the market not just through import quotas but also through a series of blackout periods when only culturally Chinese pics are allowed to preem. Such tactics would not be necessary were local movies doing better, but year to date at Chinese turnstiles, it has been all Hollywood.

Success can only be claimed for Hong Kong-made “Protege” and “The Magic Gourd,” which notched a modest $2 million in its first two weeks and was co-produced by Disney. Compare that with the boffo performances of “Transformers,” which took $5 million on its opening weekend in China; “Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End,” which topped out at $15 million; and the $18 million trapped by “Spider Man 3.”

If “Hour” is allowed its minute of glory in China, it won’t have come without weeks of agonizing.

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