The movie adaptation of Monster Hunter looked set to do decent, perhaps even very good box office in China… until it got yanked for an allegedly racist joke. Imagine being the writer (and in this case, also the director) waking up on Saturday to hear that your movie is in the middle of a shitstorm that has killed its place in China. The studio has had to apologise to China in a PR nightmare. But the filmmakers clarified to Deadline that it was never intended to be racist at all.
It turns out that the joke was improvised by the Chinese-American actor, who's a rapper and celebrity in China. It's a moment where an ethnic character asserts his ethnicity with a silly joke and not intended as racist at all. It was meant to be a statement of pride at his heritage. As Milla Jovovich wrote to her co-star: "I'm 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."
Chinese social media misinterpreted the line, thinking it referenced a very old racists schoolyard taunt. Unfortunately, the damage is done. It's darkly funny and tragic that this bit of giggly schoolboy messing around has potentially cost the studio millions in the box office that it desperately needs in a dismal year. All this over a movie called Monster Hunter.
Why They're Ticked Off
Let's be clear: it's not the Chinese government that censored the movie and pulled it from cinemas. It's the distributor after the social media outcry. The Chinese have kept score of every racist insult, every slur, every humiliation that has been dealt them by the West, including the right-wing blaming them for the coronavirus, so if they think you're insulting them again, they won't take it lying down. Angry people with a grudge are always on the lookout to be triggered, especially on the internet. And the internet is where people misinterpret things and jump to conclusions all the time. The Chinese subtitles reportedly didn't help, but we haven't seen them, so we couldn't possibly comment.
The producers are cutting out the scene with the bad joke not because the Chinese government is censoring it but because they want to somehow salvage the movie's box office prospects. That ship has probably sailed. Even if they convince the distributor to put it back in the cinemas, the movie is already tainted by having that joke in the first place. Everyone is going to think of it as "that movie with that crappy racist joke, even if they cut it out." The common wisdom now is that Monster Hunter is dead in China.
There are multiple lessons to be learned from this debacle. One is for movie studios not to put too many of their eggs in the China basket without watching out for the cultural landmines. China might offer the potential of massive box office earnings, but tastes can be fickle.
The other lesson is for writers and filmmakers: if you want to make money from China (or any other country, for that matter): don't make any racially-charged jokes, even if it's meant to be positive. Someone is always going to misinterpret it. You'll find it's so much easier NOT to do it. It'll save you a lot of trouble. And possibly make you a lot more money.