Hollywood fantasy action movie “Monster Hunter” has been pulled from theaters in China days after its release, following uproar on social media about a pun in the script that some viewers said was racist.
The film, written and directed by Paul W. S. Anderson and based on the popular video game series of the same name, premiered in China on December 4. The movie is distributed by Sony (SNE) worldwide and is scheduled for a Christmas Day release in the United States.
The controversial scene has been circulated online. It features Chinese-American actor Jin Au-Yeung — better known as MC Jin — as a soldier talking to a comrade as they drive across a desert. Jin points to his legs and says, “What kind of knees are these? Chinese.”
It isn’t clear exactly when the backlash began or who initiated it, but the reaction on Chinese social media quickly turned toxic. Some of the top comments on China’s Twitter-like social media platform Weibo accused the movie of “humiliating China” and “naked racism.” One user called on Jin to “apologize to the public.”
While CNN Business was unable to independently verify the authenticity of the footage, Constantin Film, a German company that co-produced the movie, said that it has “sincerely” apologized to Chinese audiences.
“There was absolutely no intent to discriminate, insult or otherwise offend anyone of Chinese heritage. Constantin Film has listened to the concerns expressed by Chinese audiences and removed the line that has led to this inadvertent misunderstanding,” Constantin Film said in a statement.
It is unclear how much of the scene will be removed, or whether an edited version of the film will be released in China.
The backlash came despite the more benign Chinese subtitles used on the scene. In the version viewed online by CNN Business, the Chinese subtitles read, “Do you know what’s underneath my knees? Gold.” The translation appears to reference the Chinese idiom “There is gold underneath a man’s knees,” which means someone will not kneel down to others.
At least one prominent critic in China was confused and infuriated that the movie had been taken out of theaters. Critic “Uncle Yuan” asked his more than 400,000 followers why the film had been pulled “just because of these two lines?”
“Why was the movie pulled? Because [we are] not confident about our culture?” Yuan said.
The backlash to “Monster Hunter” comes despite the movie being co-produced with Chinese company Tencent (TCEHY) Films, part of the Tencent (TCEHY) tech group.
On Monday, it was not possible to buy tickets to see the movie on major Chinese ticketing apps Maoyan and Taopiaopiao.
In a statement released Saturday, Xinjiekou International Cinema in Nanjing said that it had received an “emergency notification” from the movie’s producers.
“Starting today, cinemas around the country will stop playing the movie Monster Hunter,” the company said. “Xinjiekou International Cinema will refund all Monster Hunter tickets, and all refunds will be returned through the original payment methods.”
CNN Business has also reached out to Tencent Films for comment. The Chinese firm previously worked on the movie adaptation of the video game Warcraft, which made $225 million in the country.
China is a massive movie market. In 2019, the country’s box office made a record-breaking $9.2 billion. And in October 2020, domestic box office sales officially overtook US figures for the first time as the coronavirus pandemic eased in China but continued to rattle the United States. Cinemas have been open in China since July.
US production companies have been trying to break into the lucrative Chinese film market for years. However, a quota of only 30 to 40 foreign movies are allowed to screen in China every year by the government, leading some US studios to partner with Chinese companies to try and ensure their films can be screened there.
This isn’t the first time that the Monster Hunter franchise has run into trouble in China. The hotly-anticipated game “Monster Hunter: World” was blocked in the country in 2018 shortly after its release, reportedly over concerns about the lack of censorship of its online content.
The game franchise’s creator, Capcom, emphasized in a statement released Friday, as the latest controversy was unfolding, that the game and the film were made by different companies.
“After hearing everyone’s feedback about the movie, we have collected your opinions and have relayed them to the relevant companies. Capcom has always been devoted to providing good quality games to players and we hope not to disappointment you in the future,” the company said in a statement posted to Weibo.