This Movie Got Martin Scorsese Temporarily Banned From China

From 1997 until 2012, no Martin Scorsese films were available in China. 

2020 was the first year in history wherein the Chinese box office outstripped that of the United States, and 2021 is shaping up to be the same. The highest-grossing films of this year are "The Battle of Lake Chanjing," which made $900 million, and "Hi, Mom," which made $850 million and is the highest grossing film ever directed by a woman. The third highest is "F9." 

China's relationship to modern Hollywood is deep and complicated, and there is a tetchy history of push-and-pull with Chinese censors. In recent years, many mainstream American films have been including more and more Chinese content — casting Chinese stars, telling Chinese stories, filming in China — in order to tap into that country's vast audience. As it stands, only 34 non-Chinese films are allowed release in China in any given year, and American studios are going out of their way to placate the Chinese government. 

This might explain some bizarre creative choices, like the notorious subplot in "Iron Man 3," which was not released for American audiences. Indeed, there have been several mainstream American blockbusters in recent memory that star well-known Chinese actors (example: "Rogue One: A Star Wars Story" features Donnie Yen) or are set partially in China ("Transformers: Age of Extinction," "Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings"). These films were all released in China.

Any film critical of China and its government ... well Scorsese knows all about that.


To understand why China was angry at Scorsese, we need a little history: 

In very brief: In 1950, The People's Republic of China, under the Seventeen-Point Agreement, took sovereignty over the country of Tibet, declaring that the Tibetan government would still be autonomous, but that the country would actually be a part of China. The agreement was objected to by Tibet's Dalai Lama, who fled China and set up a rival government in India. In 1959 there was a Tibetan rebellion against the Chinese government, which caused the Chinese government to push back with a brutal campaign (part of the darkly-named Great Leap Forward) of Tibetan destruction wherein Tibetan people were killed and Tibetan artifacts and Buddhist monasteries were destroyed. There have been uprisings and unrest in Tibet ever since, most recently in 2008, wherein the Tibetan people protested mistreatment by the Chinese government. Amnesty International has observed that a lot of information about Tibet is now difficult to obtain.

As you can well imagine, films about Tibet — especially those that recognize its sovereignty or are critical of the Chinese government — don't get easy distribution in China. 

And wouldn't you know it, in 1997, Martin Scorsese made a film called "Kundun," which is about the Dalai Lama, and the state of Tibet in 1937 up until 1959. As one might say in business, that was not an easy sell.

Scorsese vs. China

Martin Scorsese has always been a firebrand and, even into his 80s, is still making energetic and confrontational films about the complex strengths and weaknesses in the human soul. In the late 1990s, Scorsese made a movie called "Kundun" about the life Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama and the spiritual leader of Tibet. "Kundun" was produced by Buena Vista Pictures, one of Disney's sub-brands, under protest from China's government, and its release saw an immediate ban of not just "Kundun," but of Scorsese's entrance into China, and the release of any Disney films. From 1997 until 2012, Scorsese was personally banned from entering the country. 

It wasn't until the release of Scorsese's "Hugo" that the ban was lifted. 

What Happened in 2012?

In short, Shanghai Disneyland happened. As part of a 2012 deal to build a theme park in China, Disney had to formally apologize to the Chinese government for the release of "Kundun." China not only accepted the apology, but also agreed to begin releasing Disney films again. The agreement allowed for a flood of Disney (and, by extension, other American) products to come to China in a big way, and global box office began exploding. Shanghai Disneyland opened in 2016. Martin Scorsese was officially forgiven.

And, yes, while Martin Scorsese was not a Disney employee, his 2012 film "Hugo" (released by Paramount) was not violent or lascivious compared to many of his other works, and China deemed it acceptable for release. 

More recently, as detailed in The Hollywood Reporter in 2016, China has loosened some more of its censorship rules allowing for more varied and violent content. It's worth pointing out that China has no equivalent of the MPAA giving its films content ratings. There is only the government making cuts to American films, and accepting or rejecting them by their own standards. As such, it was something of a boon when Scorsese's "The Irishman" was poised for approval in China. 

Bygones are bygones, it seems. At least between Scorsese and China and Disney.

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