Before Fight Club, here's how China has imposed alternate endings on Hollywood and Hong Kong movies

Over the years, a number of Western movies and television shows — including Men in Black 3, Cloud Atlas, and Pirates of the Caribbean — have been altered in China before they were shown to local audiences.

The New York Times January 28, 2022 15:51:58 IST
Before Fight Club, here's how China has imposed alternate endings on Hollywood and Hong Kong movies

Still from Fight Club climax

When viewers watch Fight Club on a popular Chinese streaming platform, most of the film looks exactly as it did when it was released in 1999 — except for the apocalyptic ending.

Instead of a successful plot to destroy a series of buildings, the Chinese version of the cult classic starring Brad Pitt and Edward Norton ends with a note to viewers saying that the police “rapidly figured out the whole plan, and arrested all criminals, successfully preventing the bomb from exploding.”

As for Pitt’s character, the note says, he was sent to an asylum, and later discharged. (Never mind that the character is actually a figment of Norton’s character’s imagination.)

The censored ending was discovered recently by fans in China who watched it on a streaming platform owned by Tencent, a giant Chinese entertainment company. It has led to criticism from Human Rights Watch, and chatter on social media in China and the US.

“This is SUPER wonderful! Everyone gets a happy ending in China!” Chuck Palahniuk, the writer whose 1996 novel inspired the film, wrote sarcastically on Twitter. But he also said in an interview with TMZ on Wednesday that the censored ending was closer to the ending of his book, in which the bomb malfunctions and the narrator wakes up in a mental hospital after shooting himself.

Before Fight Club heres how China has imposed alternate endings on Hollywood and Hong Kong movies

Still from Fight Club

It is unclear whether the changes to the film’s Chinese edition were the result of self-censorship, a government order or a combination of the two. The production company of the film, based in Los Angeles, did not respond to requests for comment, and its Chinese distributor declined to comment.

But this much is clear: Fight Club is not the first movie where the version made for the Chinese mainland audience differed from the original.

A ‘Reluctant Compromise’

To some extent, recent censorship echoes how mainland Chinese authorities once demanded changes to movies from Hong Kong, the former British colony that was promised a high degree of autonomy when it returned to Chinese sovereignty in 1997.

Hong Kong’s golden age of cinema included Bruce Lee kung fu films and Wong Kar-wai dramas, and for years, local production companies there would export films to Taiwan, Singapore, Malaysia, and other countries in the region.

But when those international sales were battered by a 1997 financial crisis in East Asia, Hong Kong production houses began looking to mainland China as their main source of overseas revenue. As a price of admission, they often agreed to produce alternate versions of their movies to suit local censorship requirements.

“When exploitation of the new mainland market becomes a matter of life and death, such a reluctant compromise with market entry limitations is totally understandable as a measure of expediency,” scholar Hilary Hongjin He wrote in a 2010 study of Hong Kong cinema in the Chinese mainland.

Early Censorship

An early example of such censorship is The Inescapable Snare, a reedited version of Naked Ambition, a 2003 Hong Kong film about the local sex industry. The mainland version adds a plot twist in which Hong Kong police officers team up with Beijing’s Ministry of Public Security to crack down on pornography and prostitution.

Other Hong Kong films were edited for audiences in Southeast Asia, a region where governments and film audiences tend to be socially conservative. Notably, the directors of Infernal Affairs, a 2002 crime drama, produced an alternate version for the Malaysian market in which a criminal who has infiltrated the Hong Kong Police Force is apprehended after murdering an undercover officer.

“Liu Jianming, we have found out that you are a spy for the mafia,” a policeman tells the criminal in the alternate ending, moments after Liu kills the undercover officer in the elevator of an office tower. “You are arrested.”

In the original version, Liu rides the elevator to the ground floor, and leaves the building.

Pro-Government Codas

Today, Hong Kong’s world-famous film scene has become the latest form of expression to be censored, since Beijing imposed a national security law on the territory in 2020. The Hong Kong government has been cracking down on documentaries and independent productions that it fears could glamourise the pro-democracy protests that roiled the city in 2019.

As for Chinese-language films that are shown on the mainland, they now tend to have just one version for both the domestic and international market, even if they are produced in Hong Kong, said Kevin Ma, the founder of Asia in Cinema, a news site for the regional industry. They also tend to end either with villains getting caught, he said, or with a written coda that praises the benefits of law and order.

As for foreign films that are imported to China, some disappear from local streaming platforms without explanation.

In many other cases, Ma said, it is common for local distributors to tone down movies through relatively minor cuts. For example, the Chinese version of Logan, a 2017 blockbuster in the X-Men series starring Hugh Jackman, has less violence than the original.

Other cuts are more blatant. The Chinese version of Bohemian Rhapsody, the 2018 Queen biopic, cut references to singer Freddie Mercury’s sexuality — including a crucial scene in which he tells his fiancée that he is not straight, and another in which his male lover is introduced.

A New Approach

The Chinese version of Fight Club is notable, Ma said, because it carries both strategic cuts and the same kind of pro-government written codas that are typically reserved only for Chinese-language films.

“Cutting is normal, but adding a new ending for foreign films? That’s new for me,” he said.

Ma said it would be interesting to know whether the US production company of the film discussed censorship in the contract when it sold the distribution rights in China. New Regency, the Los Angeles-based company that produced Fight Club, did not immediately respond to requests for comment Thursday.

A spokesperson for Tencent Video, the Chinese streaming platform that hosts the censored version of Fight Club, declined to comment when reached by telephone Thursday. So did a spokesperson for Pacific Audio and Video, the film’s Chinese distributor.

At least one other foreign movie was shown in China with both strategic cuts and a written coda. In the original ending of Lord of War, a 2005 Hollywood blockbuster in which a Ukrainian arms dealer, played by Nicolas Cage, is chased by an Interpol agent, his character is released from prison and returns to selling arms. But the Chinese version ends with Cage’s character, Yuri Orlov, still incarcerated.

“Yuri Orlov confessed all the crimes officially charged against him in court, and was sentenced to life imprisonment in the end,” a coda reads.

Mike Ives c.2022 The New York Times Company

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