Laughter turns potent for Hollywood

World over, people are still grappling with the insidious scars left by the dark history of colonisation and its aftermath on the psyche of a nation.


Ambica Sachin

Published: Wed 9 Dec 2020, 7:07 PM

It’s never a good idea to bite the hand that feeds you, is a phrase most of us are familiar with but Hollywood seems to have woken up to it pretty late. As the makers of Monster Hunter, an action film based on the popular video game that released in UAE markets the past weekend, found to their dismay, a poorly disguised racist ‘just a joke’ has imploded spectacularly on screen in China, causing their multi-million-dollar target audience to shun theatres.

The Milla Jovovich starrer, helmed by Paul W.S. Anderson, sees the statuesque Resident Evil veteran leading a team of elite soldiers to battle savage beasts with the help of the titular character, played by Thai action star Tony Jaa.

The scene that has caused all the consternation features Chinese-American rapper Jin-Au-Young a.k.a MC Jin whose character, a solider, exclaims at one point: ‘Look at my knees!” The other unnamed character responds, “What kind of knees are these?” to which Jin jokingly responds, “Chi-knees.”

On the face of it the comment doesn’t seem offensive or discriminatory in any way, just one of those dumb, silly jokes meant to make audiences laugh out loud in the middle of heavy-duty action sequences. But Chinese critics have pointed out that the line harkens back to a racist schoolyard taunt that goes, “Chinese, Japanese, dirty knees…” and implies Asians are dirty. Many social media users have also picked up on the fact that the Chinese subtitles have deliberately glossed over the actual reference in what some saw as an attempt to localise the pun.

German company, Constantin Film, that co-produced the thriller, even issued an apology to audiences on Sunday. “There was absolutely no intent to discriminate, insult or otherwise offend anyone of Chinese heritage,” it said.

But by then the Chinese Whispers had worked its way through the country and the movie had been pulled out of all theatres. Earlier talks of deleting the scene and re-releasing the movie has now given way to silence about its fate in a market that was slowly opening up post the lockdown restrictions.

Are the Chinese as a nation sensitive to perceived slander? Should the dialogue have been taken with a pinch of salt and allowed to remain? This is probably a loaded question that an outsider/foreigner cannot or should not deem to answer with any authority.

World over, people are still grappling with the insidious scars left by the dark history of colonisation and its aftermath on the psyche of a nation and its people cannot be ignored or whitewashed so easily. What was once seen as the ‘White Man’s burden’ is still a sentiment that unfortunately continues to exist and is propagated by a select few with access to money and power.

In the case of the Monster Hunter what makes it even more of a slap for the local population is perhaps the fact that the film has been co-produced by Tencent, the Chinese Internet conglomerate with a growing presence in movies. So, the underlying sentiment among the Chinese audience is also about how could a movie made with Chinese money be condescending towards their own people?

With Hollywood and film industries world over going through one of its worst phases globally, it is also a lesson for big production companies to be mindful of cultural sensitivities while in pursuit of greener pastures to showcase their big blockbusters. If you need people to put their money on your offerings, then you need to provide content that entertains and isn’t dismissive of the audience who funds your vision.

The Chinese market is one of the world’s biggest and most lucrative ones for filmmakers, just by sheer numbers. However, a combination of strict censorship laws and the country’s endeavour to build their own domestic film market, coupled with cultural sensitivities mean it is an extremely delicate market to penetrate.

Humour can be very localised at the end of the day. What’s funny for you, might not be funny for me and vice versa. But it’s no doubt an essential emotion to help us tide through difficult times. But as Hollywood is slowly beginning to realise, laughter can be potent. Just don’t mess with the Chinese.


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