US film steers clear of Tibet

Film-makers erased the Tibetan origins of a character in Doctor Strange so as not to offend the Chinese government

Tilda Swinton.

BEIJING • The trailer for Doctor Strange from Marvel Studios has ignited outrage against what some people call another example of Hollywood's racially insensitive casting. It reveals that a Tibetan character from the comic book, the Ancient One, is played by British actress Tilda Swinton.

It turns out that the film-makers scrubbed the Tibetan origins of the character altogether, in large part over fears of offending the Chinese government and people - and losing access to the world's second biggest film market, according to screenwriter C. Robert Cargill.

The Tibetan issue is one of the thorniest involving China and other nations. The Chinese Communist Party and its army occupied Tibet in 1951 and it is well aware that many non-Chinese believe that Tibet should have independence or greater autonomy.

Marvel said in a statement that there was no problem with the casting of Swinton as the Ancient One since the character was written as a Celt in the film.

In an interview last week on pop culture show Double Toasted, Cargill said the decision to rid the character of Tibetan roots was made by others working on the project, including director Scott Derrickson.

In response to an angry viewer's question about the casting of Swinton, he said: "The Ancient One was a racist stereotype who comes from a region of the world that is in a very weird political place. He originates from Tibet, so if you acknowledge that Tibet is a place and that he's Tibetan, you risk alienating 1 billion people."

He added that there was the risk of "the Chinese government going, 'Hey, you know one of the biggest film-watching countries in the world? We're not going to show your movie because you decided to get political'".

The Chinese government sets a strict limit on the number of foreign films shown in cinemas each year.

Cargill said some critics had said the film-makers could have cast Malaysian actress Michelle Yeoh as the Ancient One. "If you are telling me you think it's a good idea to cast a Chinese actress as a Tibetan character, you are out of your mind," he said.

He said Derrickson hoped that changing the gender would help offset bad choices that had to be made. Derrickson, he said, reasoned that "there's no real way to win this, so let's use this as an opportunity to cast an amazing actress in a male role".

"Sure enough, there's not a lot of talk about, 'Oh man, they took the job away from a guy and gave it to a woman'. Everybody kind of decides to pat us on the back for that and then decides to scold us for her not being Tibetan."


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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 28, 2016, with the headline US film steers clear of Tibet. Subscribe