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

Screens show a group of Iron Man during a promotional event of the movie "Iron Man 3" before its release in China in early May at the Imperi
Screens show a group of Iron Man during a promotional event of the movie "Iron Man 3" before its release in China in early May at the Imperi

SHANGHAI (Reuters) - When superhero film "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 Zhu Dake, an outspoken Chinese film critic based in Shanghai.

Every movie in China is censored by the Film Censorship Committee, made up of 37 members including 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 percent in 2012 to 17.1 billion yuan ($2.77 billion).

The amendments remain unknown and committee members could not be reached for comment.

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 hero 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.

DJANGO SHOWS ARBITRARY DECISIONS

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 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 U.S. 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".

Western films aren't the only victims. The Chinese film "Farewell My Concubine" won the Palme d'Or, the highest prize awarded at the Cannes Film Festival, in 1993, but was banned in mainland China for depicting miserable scenes during China's Cultural Revolution in the 1960s and 1970s.

"Sometimes the suggestions of the censors mean we don't know whether to laugh or cry," award-winning Chinese director Feng Xiaogang said at an awards ceremony in 2012. "Would any Hollywood director have to suffer this?"

The overall impact may be broad and long-term. Zhu Dake said the heavy-handed grip on artistic expression is holding back China's budding auteurs.

"It's not that Chinese directors lack the talent to make great movies," he said. "But there's always a sword hanging there, which could drop at any time." ($1 = 6.1707 Chinese yuan)

(Reporting by Shanghai Newsroom, Editing by Elaine Lies and Michael Perry)

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