Iron Man shows Hollywood's bent to take on China censors' steely grip

SHANGHAI (REUTERS) - When Iron Man 3 makes its Chinese debut, it will include top Chinese actress Fan Bingbing and some footage shot inside China - additions aimed at tapping into the country's lucrative and booming cinema market.

Co-producer DMG Entertainment, a Chinese firm, and the Walt Disney-owned Marvel Studios also hope the changes will help ease the film's way past China's strict censors and the draconian, and often confusing, rules for Western films.

"There is no law of film in China, and so no specific standard. The members on the committee censor films totally by their own judgment," said outspoken Chinese film critic Zhu Dake.

Every movie in China is censored by the Film Censorship Committee, made up of 37 members who include officials, academics, film magazine editors and directors. They vet nudity, violence and politically sensitive scenes. Western films must, in addition, meet the committee's "amendment opinions" to be one of the 34 Hollywood films permitted in China each year, giving them a shot at a lucrative market where box office takings grew 30 per cent last year to 17.1 billion yuan (S$3.42 billion).

Imported films, which raked in over half the box office last year, have gotten flexible as a result. The latest James Bond film, Skyfall, cut several sensitive scenes, while action thriller Looper added Chinese members to the cast.

In Iron Man 3, which opens on May 1, Robert Downey Jr stars as Tony Stark, while Ben Kingsley plays the "Mandarin", a half-Chinese villain - the kind of thing that could be a red flag for censors. In the Chinese version, however, the name is translated as "Man Daren", removing the overtly Chinese connotation.

Iron Man 2 was also censored before it screened in China in 2010, with the words for "Russia" and "Russian" left untranslated in the subtitles and the spoken words muffled.

China and Russia share a close-knit history of socialism and have recently reaffirmed close political and military ties.

Nothing, though, is guaranteed. Django Unchained, the Oscar-winning film from director Quentin Tarantino, known for his violent tales, was pulled abruptly from Chinese cinemas at its debut earlier this month.

Distributors cited "technical reasons", but film critic Zhu thinks the trigger was more political. He said the narrative, which involves a European outsider stirring rebellion in the pre-Civil War United States, could have been the issue.

"He is an outside force inciting people to rise up against slavery, which may be reminiscent of Chinese social reality," he said.

On April 26, the movie's US distributors said it had gotten the green light for re-release in May. A Hollywood source close to the film said additional cuts had been made but declined to elaborate on what they were.

China's cinema goers do not always appreciate the meddling.

"The Chinese elements added feel abrupt; including Summer Qing is totally incongruous!" said microblogger "Grapefruit and Lemon" on China's Twitter-like Weibo, referring to a Chinese actress who appeared alongside Bruce Willis in Looper.