Will ‘Venom’ Be the Next Hollywood Film With China Trouble After ‘The Eternals,’ ’Shang-Chi’ and ‘Black Widow’?

Director Andy Serkis, left, and Tom Hardy on the set of Columbia Pictures' VENOM: LET THERE BE CARNAGE.
Jay Maidment

Yet another week has passed without any news of a release date for Sony’s “Venom: Let There Be Carnage,” which debuted stateside Oct. 1.

In China, rumors have quietly circulated that it may be due to two ‘anti-China’ interviews that star Tom Hardy gave at Cannes back in 2012 while promoting the film “Lawless.”

Asked at the film’s press conference whether he saw Marlon Brando as an acting influence, Hardy admitted he had only ever seen one Brando movie — not “The Godfather,” “On the Waterfront,” or “A Streetcar Named Desire,” but one he described as “‘The Tea Rising in Shanghai’… the one where he played the Chinaman,” to laughs from the audience. He was referring to the 1956 Japan-set comedy “The Teahouse of the August Moon.”

The film stars Brando in yellowface as an Okinawan villager named Sakini, and takes place during the 1945 U.S. occupation of Okinawa in the wake of World War II, not China.

Hardy doubled down on his use of the term Chinaman in a subsequent interview with Vulture.

Asked to confirm that he hadn’t seen the Brando classics, Hardy reiterated: “I’ve seen ‘Shanghai Teahouse of the Rising Sun,’ or whatever it’s called, where he plays the Chinaman.”

When the interviewer noted that the casting choice was “questionable, in retrospect,” Hardy replied: “The thing is that it’s great, because you go, ‘Okay, everybody fucks up.’”

Hardy went on to call Mickey Rooney in yellowface for “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” “great.”

“I mean to say: These are legends, and even legends are fallible. Reach for the stars and catch the moon! If I am duly compared to Marlon Brando at all, well, I can only think of ‘The Teahouse of the Shanghai Noon,’ that they’re comparing me to that!”

When the interviewer praised Hardy for being so candid “in an age where everything is so PR-managed,” Hardy replied: “Mmm, well it won’t be [like this] when China rolls on us in fifteen years and we’ll all have to speak Cantonese. Then people will have to grow the fuck up, won’t they? Up to a trillion dollars in debt, then we actually realize that we really are in debt and that China’s a major creditor…”

The interviewer kidded that he shouldn’t say such things in front of the festival’s Chinese Pavilion.

Hardy responded by joking nihilistically about the rise of China in language tinged with yellow peril metaphors. “There’s more people in China than there are here. Who are we to stand in the way of what God wants, or whatever your concept of that is? No man can stop a tidal wave…It’s just the rise and collapse of civilizations!

“You face the fucking fear and you face it head on. Because it’s going to happen anyway, and it’s not a bad thing! It’s called evolution. How’s your Cantonese?”

China’s official language is Mandarin, though Cantonese dialect is spoken in the country’s south and Hong Kong.

Hardy’s comments have been described as “insulting to China” in hundreds of comments on Chinese forums and are dissected in a half dozen videos on the YouTube-like Bilibili platform, including one viewed nearly 1.5 million times.

“It is definitely racial discrimination to call a Japanese character a Chinaman. I really feel offended. It’s such a shame. Bye bye, Tom Hardy,” wrote one.

Another asked: “Would he dare to replace the word ‘Chinaman’ with the n-word?”

In a political climate where even an unflattering interpretation of a one-word joke can get a major blockbuster pulled from Chinese theaters or a star’s passing mention of a lemon tea brand can provoke “anti-China” accusations, it’s surprising that more noise hasn’t emerged over Hardy’s comments, which remain online on Vulture’s website.

Vehement backlash over more innocuous stuff is more typical. After a since-deleted 2013 interview from director Chloe Zhao deemed “insulting to China” resurfaced online earlier this year, the theatrical release for her film “Nomadland” was cancelled and her name censored. Zhao had called China “a place where there are lies everywhere.”

Many online assessed that the tempered response to Hardy’s more incendiary comments is likely due to his large existing Chinese fanbase — a luxury that “Shang-Chi” newcomer Simu Liu wasn’t afforded.

“The lead in ‘Shang-Chi’ expressed his apologies and is deemed ‘anti-China’ without even saying anything, whereas a bunch of people are helping wash away Tom [Hardy’s comments] — indications that the number of fans you have is still very important,” one Douban user stated.

If Hardy’s past words really have led to a quiet ban on “Venom 2,” it would represent a financial disappointment for Sony, which clearly has specifically been courting the China market given a gratuitous line of Chinese dialogue thrown into the first trailer. How significant is moot.

The original “Venom” film grossed $856 million worldwide in 2018, and earned more in China ($269 million) than in North America ($214 million) despite releasing in the territory 35 days later. But no Hollywood-made film has got anywhere near that score in 2021. The highest, with $192 million, have been “Godzilla Vs. Kong” backed by Chinese-owned Legendary Pictures, and “F9” with $217 million.