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At the Movies in China, Can a Russian Be the Bad Guy?
Since when is Russia a dirty word in Chinese? Blockbuster movie sequel “Iron Man 2” is playing to full theatres in China, but it has been bizarrely edited by Chinese censors, who were apparently uncomfortable with the Russian origins of the film’s chief villain. In the film, hero Tony Stark, played by Robert Downey Jr., battles Ivan Vanko, played by Mickey Rourke, the son of a disgraced Russian physicist with a grievance against the Stark family that dates back to the Cold War. But the words “Russia” and “Russian” are distorted and inaudible every time they are spoken by characters in the film, and don’t appear in the Chinese subtitles.
Why? It’s hard to say exactly, but it seems that China, which often finds itself aligned with Russia against the West on issues from human rights to sanctions against rogue states, doesn’t want its diplomatic ally portrayed negatively. Still a communist country, China is also likely uncomfortable with America’s persistent nostalgia for the Cold War conflict, which was at the heart of the original Iron Man comic books of the 1960s, with Tony Stark as a Howard Hughes-like anti-communist defense contractor.
China only allows 20 foreign films to be screened in its theaters every year, so it could easily have just kept “Iron Man 2″ out entirely. We don’t expect the remake of “Red Dawn,” for instance, to play in Chinese theatres when it opens in November, this time with China standing in for the Soviet Union as the force that invades the American Midwest. But to support its nascent theater industry, Beijing does seek to allow in the major American blockbusters, and like Hollywood, Beijing seems to have recognized that comic-book movies are reliable money makers. So they apparently felt compelled to give “Iron Man 2″ a green light, despite the awkward editing that would have to be done.
The clumsy censorship of Iron Man 2 raises some troubling questions. First off, Chinese censors may be wrong if they think the movie-going public won’t notice. Sure, those audience members who are entirely dependent on subtitles might not catch on to the ruse, but those that speak at least a little English, which includes much of the rising urban middle class, are bound to notice. We’re just guessing, but might such flagrant censorship prompt even more unwelcome reflection on the legacy of the Cold War by ordinary Chinese spectators than the mere appearance of a Russian villain in a film? And second, even if the U.S. successfully persuades China to open up its market to more foreign releases, having Russians as well as Chinese barred from being the bad guys will still significantly restrict the amount of Hollywood fare that gets through.