Chinese viewers, bored by moribund local movies, are clamoring for something with more braiiins.
Masses of zombified humans lurch towards the viewer. Milla Jovovich and her co-stars, dwarfed in the bottom right-hand corner of the poster, fire impotently at the overwhelming hordes.
In a country where censorship rules decree that films that even suggest the existence of the supernatural can be banned from distribution, it’s a startlingly hair-raising marketing campaign for Resident Evil: The Final Chapter 生化危机：终章.
But after six films spread out over 14 years, the Resident Evil franchise is going all the way in its effort to attract Chinese audiences even as Chinese censors appear to be doing their best to undermine their efforts.
Despite consistently poor reviews, the Sony property has already passed global box office figures of US$1 billion, making it the most successful video game to film franchise to date.
With the recent announcement that Resident Evil had secured a coveted import quota slot in the world’s second-largest entertainment market, the franchise really has the potential to go stratospheric in its final bow.
That’s easier said than done in a country whose opaque censorship rules that prohibit the promotion of “cults and superstitions” have ensnared scores of films like more than one of the Harry Potter series, along with Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest and Guillermo del Toro’s gothic horror Crimson Peak.
The Final Chapter marks the third film from the video-game to movie survival horror franchise to make it to China, but no foreign film is ever a shoe-in when it comes to the country’s limited import quota slots.
For the film’s local distributors, it’s a race against time. The Milla Jovovich-starrer already hit screens in North America on January 27, and pirated copies are already being circulated online.
Now eagle-eyed fans have noticed something that could undermine the whole marketing effort. Less than two weeks before the film debuts on cinema screens, news has broken that Chinese audiences will only be seeing a trimmed version of the film after censors have taken their scissors to it.
A photo of the film’s approval notice leaked out to local media lists a run-time of 99 minutes – 7 minutes shorter than the 144 minutes version released elsewhere around the world. The shorter time is reflected on the film’s Mtime and Douban pages.
As far as cuts go, it’s not the worst that could happen. In 2013, censors slashed 40 minutes, or one-fourth of the total run time, from Tom Tykwer and the Wachowskis’ epic Cloud Atlas. But for Chinese horror fan-boys and girls, every last gruesome shot in the fast-paced shoot-em-up is precious
The film’s marketers clearly know that too, with videos shared on the film’s Weibo account with blood-stained graphics grimly tallying up a kill-streak as the film’s heroes mow down monsters in their path.
“What can you do in just 15 seconds?” the accompanying post asks, prompting some fans to wonder what they’ll miss in seven whole minutes. Some Weibo users are sharing their own solution: “If you want the full version, just private message me” read more than a few comments under photos of their computer screens playing the uncut version.
China has no rating system, meaning that films generally have to be classed as suitable for all before gaining a release. All too often that means Hollywood films have to undergo and nip and a tuck before being given a full bill of health for Chinese viewers consumption.
But lately, the censors have proven a fickle bunch, barring Paul Feig’s all-female Ghostbusters reboot despite it dropping the Chinese character for “ghost” from its Chinese title on the one hand, but allowing Mel Gibson’s latest ultra-violent Hacksaw Ridge through with on 30 seconds of cuts on the other.
Occasionally, studios hit a brick wall despite their best attempts to make their movies more palatable to the mores of Chinese film officials. In 2013, Chinese censors rejected a cut of Paramount’s World War Z, which contained two elements Chinese officials weren’t happy about: zombies and Brad Pitt, whose films and even presence were then banned in China.
Local filmmakers have been clamoring for a rating system that would allow filmmakers to flex their creative muscles and distributors to clearly target their shows at specific audience segments.
But while Chinese officials dither, nearby competitors are getting the jump on the Chinese film industry. That reality was driven home last year when South Korean zombie extravaganza Train To Busan shot to box office success, not only in its home country but in Singapore, Taiwan, and Hong Kong.
Despite not making it to Chinese cinemas screens, the buzz prompted mainland viewers to illegally download it in droves and sparked soul-searching about the state of Chinese film within the industry.
“Imagine if industry insiders were more respectful of movies, censorship was more tolerant and we used Train to Busan as our standard, it wouldn’t be hard for us to produce a Train to Beijing or ‘Train to Shanghai,'” lamented one influential film movie media outlet on its WeChat page at the time. “Good films should not be forced to stay in hard drives.”