Chinese regulators are in the midst of censoring the Hollywood title “Monster Hunter” after controversy broke out online on opening day over a ten second-long exchange in the film that patriotic local viewers say “insults China.”
The fantasy action film is produced, written and directed by Paul W.S. Anderson, and stars his wife Milla Jovovich, Tony Jaa, T.I., and others. It also features Jin Au-Yeung, better known as MC Jin. He is the first Asian-American solo rapper to sign to a major label and is well known in China for his appearance on the popular competition show “The Rap of China.”
The movie is loosely based on the immensely popular role-playing video game series of the same name, developed by Japan’s Capcom, but sold and distributed in China by Chinese tech giant Tencent, whose film arm also co-produced the film.
“Monster Hunter” enjoyed midnight screenings in the small hours of Friday local time, and officially debuted in Chinese cinemas on Friday, Dec. 4, fully three weeks ahead of its planned Dec. 25 U.S. release. Despite hitting China fresh and first, it grossed just $5.19 million on day one, good enough only for third place, after trouble quickly emerged.
Cinemas around the country began to pull the movie from their line-ups when what was intended as a lighthearted moment in the film was taken by local viewers as a gloating insult. Though around a quarter of all film screenings in China were allotted to “Monster Hunter” on Friday,” by Saturday that had fallen to only 0.7%.
By around midnight the same day, many cinemas received an urgent notice to cancel all upcoming screenings and issue refunds for shows already sold, according to numerous screenshots of such directives posted online. “A new version is being produced overnight, and should be the one screened… Theaters should please strictly observe that the old version should not be further screened a single time,” one read.
But later, on Saturday morning local time, new leaked directives that Variety has not yet directly confirmed said that distribution of the DCP copies for the new version has also been suspended — indicating that the release of even a censored version is effectively halted.
If so, it will deal a blow to Tencent Pictures’ reputation, and indicate that the Chinese political winds have now become serious headwinds for American content — even when that content is, in the case of “Monster Hunter,” jointly produced with German, Japanese and Chinese firms.
While some hardcore fans of the video game said that they still hoped the film adaptation will be allowed to re-screen after cuts, most others cheered on the idea that it would be taken down for good.
“If there is no severe punishment, in the future others who want to humiliate China will just humiliate China, thinking it’s fine to just give those Chinese a version to screen with the insults cut out,” wrote one Weibo user. Weibo is a wildly popular social media platform operated by Sina Corp. and not affiliated to Tencent, owner of WeChat, though many online comments appeared to blame Tencent for content changes on the site, where trends and visibility are notoriously susceptible to paid manipulation.
One post addressed Tencent directly: “Hah, so you’d rather cut out the insulting part in the night without banning it outright? Sure, go ahead and help the foreigners save face!”
Tencent declined to comment for this story, while Capcom and production companies Constantin Film, Impact Pictures, contacted by Variety, had not yet replied at the time of publication. Sony, which distributes “Monster Hunter” in other territories but is not involved in its China release, said it was not “fully informed” of the situation and declined to comment.
Meanwhile, Chinese users have quickly flooded the video game’s Steam page with hundreds of angry, negative reviews, most mentioning “dirty knees” — even as a few gamers are leaving positive reviews specifically to troll China, such as one that’s merely a long, bilingual list of the country’s most censored issues and events.
“Capcom is dead to me!” wrote one negative reviewer in Chinese, while another wrote in English, “I don’t recommend this game just because of its movie racism [sic].”
What Do Chinese Viewers Find So Offensive?
It’s worth breaking down exactly what it is about those ten seconds of “Monster Hunter” that has set off such a firestorm — if only to get a glimpse of how unforeseeably difficult it can be in this political climate to create global content that works in China, now the world’s largest film market, and abroad.
Early in the day on Friday, a short clip of the offending passage seemingly shot in a cinema by cellphone circulated on Chinese social media. It appears to have sparked outrage due to the subtitles and an unspoken, inferred subtext that would likely have been lost to those who know only Chinese or English, but not both.
In the scene, a white male character and an Asian character played by Jin are driving together at high speed. “What?” says the former. “Look at my knees!” shouts Jin. “What kind of knees are these?” asks his companion. “Chi-nese!” jokes Jin, punning on the word’s last syllable.
Though some might view this as camaraderie and banter over a bad pun, Chinese viewers were incensed after the exchange was interpreted as a reference to an old, racist schoolyard rhyme insulting Asians. “Chi-nese, Jap-a-nese, dir-ty knees, look at these,” it apparently sing-songs, accompanied by knee slaps and slant-eyed gestures.
This interpretation was subtly propelled forward by the Chinese subtitles. To localize the joke, translators made the dialogue a reference to a Chinese colloquialism about how men must have dignity and not kneel down easily. “Men have gold under their knees, and only kneel to the heavens and their mother,” the saying goes in rough translation, implying that any time a man kneels, it should be an occasion precious as gold.
The inference of a connection to the racist rhyme from the words “knees” and “Chinese” combined with the subtitles’ phrasing about kneeling down appears to have made many patriotic young viewers believe that the moment in English must be an obvious insult. Worse, many feel that the translation — which swaps in references to “gold” and makes no mention of “Chinese” — was a deliberate cover up of the offense.
By afternoon, the hashtag “Monster Hunter Insults China” had taken off on Weibo. Viewer rating apps quickly filled up with angry rhetoric.
“Who’s under your knees? Chinese people? Sorry, garbage movie. Let’s boycott it!” wrote one of the most liked comments on the Maoyan ticketing and review platform. Another chimed: “If you’re a Chinese person, you understand that you shouldn’t go see this, right?” The film currently has a lowish 7.8 out of 10 rating on Maoyan and a dismal 4.9 out of 10 on review site Douban.
Even the ruling party’s Communist Youth League took the unusual step of slamming the film on its official Weibo account Friday evening, pouring gas on the already burning flames of patriotic outrage with a post calling out American racism and hypocrisy.
“What kind of knees are these?” it wrote above a hashtag of the movie’s title, accompanied by a photo of a giant policeman’s knees crashing down on the tiny heads of upward-looking passerby, overlaid with the words “Floyds, can you breathe?”
The missive was soon reposted by “Ziguang Ge,” an important, high-level Communist Party magazine focused on Party-building that targets government officials, alongside the English caption “I can’t breathe” and a smiley face.
Both posts were later deleted, but the fact remains that two high-level government entities speaking to an internal Communist Party audience with highly controlled messaging chose to use a passing moment in a video game adaptation to prod the U.S.
By Friday evening, Capcom Asia had issued a Weibo statement in Chinese to distance itself from the growing controversy, reminding readers that it had no role in the production of the film.
“After learning your opinions about the movie ‘Monster Hunter,’ we’ve collected everyone’s ideas and reported the situation to the relevant companies,” it said, saying it “hopes to continue to live up to your expectations in the future” and keep on creating appealing video games.
Nationalist Criticism Catches Tencent in an Awkward Bind
The incident highlights the extent to which even the biggest companies can be laid low by runaway Chinese nationalism. That tide — stoked by constant official rhetoric and narratives about how China is the victim of centuries of international prejudice and misunderstanding — has often been turned against foreign companies. Now, it has turned against homegrown Tencent, as users criticize the conglomerate for participating in a foreign production that purportedly slanders China, and appearing to censor nationalist criticism of the film.
Tencent is left in an awkward position, caught between appearing to silence patriots and defending its financial interests.
“A certain China-insulting film is madly deleting people’s posts — looks like somebody’s nervous,” taunted one Weibo user Saturday morning as censors continued to expunge critical posts en masse.
Currently, a Weibo search for “Monster Hunter Insults China” yields the message that results cannot be displayed because they violate “relevant laws, regulations and policies.” Commenters have now begun to use homonyms or English abbreviations for the phrase “insult China” to evade deletion and continue bashing the movie.
Even the China’s strict film censorship apparatus hasn’t evaded the nationalists’ opprobrium, with many chiding authorities for failing to censor the film more aggressively. “It’s truly inexcusable that the censors didn’t catch something like this,” wrote one.
Meanwhile, posts arguing that the clip isn’t actually racist in content have also been taken down. “If the lines came from the mouth of a Chinese character, then, in the way black people call each other the n-word, it’s not really discrimination,” wrote one censored take. Another defended Jin’s character by saying, “It’s illogical for an American-born Chinese to engage in racial discrimination against Chinese people,” according to the website FreeWeibo, which archives censored posts.
Clever internet users have started to adopt official rhetoric championed by the powerful Central Propaganda Bureau itself as a sort of shield to protect their expressions of displeasure from deletion, possibly further politicizing the situation.
The Bureau has recently championed the need for Chinese society to “resolutely prevent the risks of capital manipulating public opinion” — a phrase whose hashtag is now being used by anti-“Monster Hunters” pointing out how posts against Tencent’s interests are disappearing.
“We should push those anti-monopoly laws forward quickly,” one user wrote under the hashtag to accompany a screenshot of Weibo blocking searches, referencing new rules issued in draft form last month that could pose a threat to Tencent’s dominant market position.
Another cheered: “Capital deleted posts off the entire web, but in the end it can’t block the raging, surging, angry will of the people!”