American movies have really been pushing buttons abroad lately. The “exclusively gay” moment in the live-action Beauty and the Beast has caused controversy in several more conservative nations — specifically in Russia and Malaysia. While neither country banned BatB entirely, both did restrict viewership: Malaysia upped the film’s PG rating in the U.S. to PG-13, while Russian viewers must be 16 years or older to see it. The latest blockbuster, Power Rangers, is now in a similar position, as it’s suggested that Becky G’s character, Trini (the Yellow Ranger), is sexually fluid. Russia’s not down with that — the country passed a law banning gay “propaganda” in 2013 — so now you can’t buy a ticket to Power Rangers if you’re under 18. (Malaysia, meanwhile, gave the movie a PG-13 rating.)
Movies that feature gay characters or politically charged plot lines are frequent targets of censorship, but local customs and the particulars of ruling regimes have blocked all sorts of movies from opening abroad for all sorts of reasons. Below, a sampler of the strangest global cinema taboos.
Back to the Future (1985) — China
China has a problem with time travel. More specifically, China has a problem with inaccurate presentations of historical events or figures that can accompany time travel, so censors have largely blocked depictions of time travel from airing in film and television. In March of 2011, the State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television said that TV shows featuring time-traveling characters “lack positive thoughts and meaning,” and that they often “casually make up myths, have monstrous and weird plots, use absurd tactics, and even promote feudalism, superstition, fatalism and reincarnation.” As a result, any movie bearing time-travel themes — including 1985’s Back to the Future, plus all the Star Trek films, Planet of the Apes, and more — were banned from airing in China.
Ghostbusters (2016) — China
China busts ghosts by not letting them in the country at all. Ghostbusters was reportedly banned from the world’s second-largest film market because it violated the old censorship guidelines against media that might “promote cults or superstition.” But according to The Hollywood Reporter, the decision was more cut and dry, with sources telling the publication that there just isn’t much interest in China for a reboot of a legacy property they never really cared about in the first place. Then again, it’s hard to care about a movie that you never saw because your state censors don’t approve of movies with ghosts. So, is it the chicken or the egg?
Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest (2006) — China
Movies with supernatural elements have long had a hard time breaking into the Chinese market, and Dead Man’s Chest had an additional element working against it: cannibalism. Between the ghosts and people eating each other, Pirates 2 didn’t stand a chance. Really, though, Chinese regulators could have just said, “It’s not very good,” and that would have been reason enough without looking like total squares.
The Interview (2014) — North Korea
Seth Rogen and James Franco’s now-infamous movie, which features a plot to assassinate North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, possibly contributed to the major hacking scandal at Sony Pictures Entertainment. North Korean officials were incensed over the comedy’s content, with a representative from the country’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs saying, “Making and releasing a movie on a plot to hurt our top-level leadership is the most blatant act of terrorism and war and will absolutely not be tolerated.” The unnamed rep also called the movie an “act of war” and promised, “If the U.S. administration allows and defends the showing of the film, a merciless countermeasure will be taken.” Many suspected the massive email hack was such a countermeasure. Obviously the movie was banned in North Korea, but the studio went so far as to scrap its domestic release plan following the cyberattack.
Zoolander (2001) — Malaysia and Singapore
Using logic slightly more reasonable than “there’s gay stuff in this movie,” the now-familiar Malaysian Ministry of Home Affairs Film Censorship Board banned Zoolander because of the movie’s plot to assassinate the Malaysian prime minister. It’s a heavy-handed move, but at least they didn’t go off the deep end and call it an “act of war.” Singapore also blocked the movie, after it was initially given a certificate for release, citing “controversial elements gathered from feedback.”
Avatar (2009) — China
Here’s a sad one. China reportedly pulled the 2-D release of Avatar from theaters because the forced removal of the Na’vi people from Hometree in the movie bore too strong a resemblance to the housing struggle taking place in that country, in which millions of people had been forcefully evicted from their homes to make way for newer, bigger buildings. However, one analyst from a consulting group in Beijing said the film was pulled because its release window coincided with the Chinese New Year, during which time domestic films are prioritized in theaters.
E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982) — Sweden, Finland, and Norway
Sweden, Finland, and Norway formed a united front against E.T. because various concerned officials felt the movie “portrays adults as the enemies of children.” In Sweden, the age of entry was restricted to those 11 and older. Finland blocked kids under 8, and Norway set its limit at kids under 12. Child protesters even reportedly gathered outside theaters with picket signs bearing messages like, “We want E.T.”
Anything with Claire Danes (Yes, really) — The Philippines
Cue a mashup of Carrie Mathison crying. Then–Filipino president Joseph Estrada said he wanted Claire Danes banned from entering the country for harsh comments she made about Manila following the filming of the 1999 movie Brokedown Palace (parts of the film take place in a Thai prison, though the production shot in Manila). Danes told Vogue the Philippine capital was a “ghastly and weird city,” adding to Premiere that it “smelled of cockroaches, with rats all over, and that there is no sewage system, and the people do not have anything — no arms, no legs, no eyes.” Danes later clarified that she was speaking only about the city’s more rundown areas where they shot, and not about Manila or the Filipino people as a whole, whom she called “warm, friendly, and supportive.” It was too little, too late, though. The Manila City Council classified the actress as “persona non grata” and banned all of her movies from playing in the city. “She should not be allowed to come here. She should not even be allowed to set foot here,” Estrada said, calling her apology disingenuous and adding that she would not be allowed back until she issued a better mea culpa.
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