Although “Monster Hunter” apologized for and censored a line of dialogue that sparked anger in China from its global version, Chinese film websites and apps have taken the unusual step of deleting the title or its user ratings — indicating that the movie’s odds of returning to the Chinese big screen likely remain slim.
Chinese cinemas began to voluntarily pull scheduled viewings within just a day of the video game adaptation’s Dec. 4 China premiere, a full three weeks ahead of its U.S. Dec. 25 roll-out. At issue was a ten-second exchange interpreted by passionately patriotic viewers as “insulting to China.” The controversy even caught the attention of the official accounts of the Communist Youth League and a high-level Communist Party magazine, whose posts decrying the film gave the issue more visibility and clout. By midnight Friday, theaters across the country had been ordered to cancel any future “Monster Hunter” screenings and to refund tickets.
Chinese notices posted online indicate that the plan was initially to create a censored version with the controversial line removed overnight and redistribute it to cinemas. That push, however, appears to have dissipated amidst continued blowback. A Western source close to the production told Variety Tuesday they currently do not have information on the film’s future prospects in China.
Whether to keep nationalistic sentiment from getting out of hand, to protect co-producer Tencent’s business interests, or other reasons, “Monster Hunter” remains a sort of odd persona non grata on the Chinese web. Ticket sales are unavailable on local ticketing apps, and comment functions there have been disabled. Despite being a top searched title on the Tao Piaopiao ticketing app Tuesday, its page was half blank, with no poster image or any of the typical key stats, past or present, indicating how many people were interested in or liked the film.
The Douban user review platform moved from making comments about “Monster Hunter” unavailable on its website and app over the weekend to removing its page on the film entirely by Tuesday. The Baidu search engine — the Chinese equivalent of Google, which is blocked in the country — lists the film in its database, but not a rating. And it has deleted all comments.
The controversy surrounding “Monster Hunter” was apparently even urgent and political sensitive enough to inspire the Hainan International Film Festival — an event that once spoke of aspirations to become the Cannes of China due to its southern tropical island location — to rather bizarrely refund tickets for Sunday screenings of the 2019 French film “Poissonsexe (Fishlove).”
Billed as an “eco-friendly romantic comedy” about a biologist seeking love in a world where fish have stopped procreating, the movie has the unfortunate luck of being given the Chinese title “Strange Fish Story,” or “guaiyu wuyu,” which shares two of the same characters with the Chinese title for “Monster Hunter: “guaiwu lieren.” Rather hilariously, the festival decided to censor the unrelated film because of the similarities of their titles so as to avoid any “Monster Hunter” trouble.
“Monster Hunter” grossed just $4.8 million on its one day of release before it was pulled — a far cry from the $160 million earned by director Paul W.S. Anderson’s last China outing. His 2017 video game franchise film “Resident Evil: The Final Chapter” grossed six times more in what is now the world’s largest film market than it did in the U.S.
The scene that caused the controversy is one in which two characters, an Australian soldier and a Chinese one played by Chinese-American Jin Au-Yeung, are joking around as they drive a vehicle through the desert. The latter puns: “What kinds of knees are these? Chi-nese!” Chinese viewers interpreted it as a reference to an old World War II-era racist rhyme that goes, “Chinese, Japanese, dirty knees.”
Constantin Film, the Munich-based German production and distribution firm that produced the movie, was the first to try to stamp out fires earlier this week with a statement to “sincerely apologize to Chinese audiences.”
“There was absolutely no intent to discriminate, insult or otherwise offend anyone of Chinese heritage,” it said. “Constantin Film has listened to the concerns expressed by Chinese audiences and removed the line that has led to this inadvertent misunderstanding.”
Anderson also issued a statement to say causing offense for some in China has “absolutely devastated” him.
“I apologize for any anxiety or upset that this line and its interpretation caused. ‘Monster Hunter’ was made as fun entertainment and I am mortified that anything within it has caused unintentional offense,” he wrote. “We have respectfully removed the line from the movie. It was never our intention to send a message of discrimination or disrespect to anyone. To the contrary — at its heart our movie is about unity.”
Actor Jin — better known as MC Jin, the trailblazing first Asian-American rapper to sign with a major U.S. record label, familiar to millions of Chinese for his appearance on the competition reality show “The Rap of China” — put out a sincere video apology on his Instagram.
He said his line had nothing to do with the racist rhyme. “It’s a pun, and the way I portrayed the character and the emotion of it is, this is a moment for him to proudly proclaim he’s a Chinese soldiers — not just his knees, but his arms, his head, his heart,” he explained. “If anything, why I’m so frustrated and it’s eating in my heart is that it felt like this was a scene that was supposed to be a moment for Chinese people to be like, ‘Yes! There are Chinese soldiers!’ That’s all. So for it to be flipped upside down like this, it really, really, really is eating at me.”
“Monster Hunter” star Milla Jovovich, who is married to Anderson, wrote Jin in a comment below that she was “so sad that you feel the need to apologize.”
“You are amazing and have always been so outspoken about your pride in your Chinese heritage. The line you improvised in the film was done to remind people of that pride, not to insult people,” she said. “We should have researched the historical origin of it and that’s 100% on us, but you didn’t do ANYTHING wrong. None of us had ever heard the ‘dirty knees’ reference. You included. It was an unfortunate mistake and the Chinese translation didn’t help.”
A fan also posted: “Please please don’t apologize!!! Take it back!! I don’t want to live in a world where we can’t laugh anymore.”
But Jin took ownership of decision to do so in a reply, despite doubling down on his joke. “I do believe that there are truly people who may have misinterpreted it and were offended. I have no issue with apologizing for the misunderstanding but not for saying the line,” he wrote, adding: “I personally think the joke is hilarious, but I’m a certified dad joke fan.”