The saga of Fight Club’s appearance in China is the latest reminder that Quentin Tarantino is, possibly, the most ethical man in Hollywood.
Those who don’t follow the Hollywood trades have no reason to remember this, but when Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood was being prepped for release in China word came down that the Chinese government was unhappy with the film and wanted a scene excised. That scene involved stuntman Cliff Booth’s (Brad Pitt) fight with Bruce Lee (Mike Moh), which the real-life Bruce Lee’s daughter, Shannon, had protested on the grounds that a simple stuntman never could have topped her braggadocious father in a one-on-one fight.
Unable to convince American audiences or executives of her righteousness, she complained to the CCP, which apparently intervened on her behalf. Set aside the grotesquerie of an American citizen complaining to a foreign power about an American artist’s artwork in an effort to stymie and censor it. Consider, instead, Tarantino’s response.
“There is a certain line you cannot cross. If it was just ‘Ok, Cliff slams Katie’s face into the fireplace four times … can we make it two times?’ Ok, I could do that,” Tarantino told Deadline’s Mike Fleming Jr. while making the Oscar rounds in 2020. “To actually remove an entire scene because the country finds that scene objectionable? No.”
This was not an idle consideration, as literally tens of millions of dollars were on the line; as Tarantino noted in that interview, the film had Chinese co-producers and keeping the film out of China was a massive hit for them and for Sony generally. Yet Tarantino was backed up by Tom Rothman, Sony’s chairman. They stuck to their guns and said no to China.
The story came to mind because the Internet was having a bit of fun with the Chinese government’s efforts to neuter the ending of Fight Club in China.
Those who are familiar with David Fincher’s 1999 adaptation of Chuck Palahniuk’s novel will remember that, at film’s end, Tyler Durden’s (Brad Pitt, again) Project Mayhem sets off a series of explosions designed to eliminate the debt records of just about everyone while the Narrator (Edward Norton) watches skyscrapers detonated and crumbling. We can debate the ultimate meaning of this some other time*, but what it represents on at least one level is the absolute failure of the state to control and protect its people.
And that is a notion that the Chinese government cannot abide: Providing the people beneath the CCP a vision of a world in which the state does not have absolute power is tantamount to admitting that such a world can exist. As a result, in the version of the movie made available via the Chinese streamer Tencent Video, the final explosive scene is nixed and the following title card closes the film:
Through the clue provided by Tyler, the police rapidly figured out the whole plan and arrested all criminals, successfully preventing the bomb from exploding. After the trial, Tyler was sent to lunatic asylum [sic] receiving psychological treatment. He was discharged from the hospital in 2012.
Vice reports, “A source familiar with the matter said the film was edited by the copyright owner and then approved by the government before it was sold to streaming sites for distribution.” Whether that approval came from Disney, which now owns rights to the film following the acquisition of 20th Century Fox, or someone else remains unclear.
Here’s what is clear: There’s no good reason for David Fincher or Edward Norton or Brad Pitt to be silent about the mutilation of the film. There’s no good reason that they shouldn’t be penning op-eds for Variety denouncing this and demanding that it cease. There’s no good reason this defacement for the sake of state control should be allowed to pass unremarked.
There is, however, a reason to remain silent: fear of Chinese retaliation against their films in the future. Fear of losing money. Fear of losing jobs. Fear of financial duress.
Fear is always a reason to avoid doing the right thing. But it’s a bad reason.
* Fight Club is best understood as a condemnation of both empty consumerism and the fascist reactionary impulse that fills the godless vacuum when the Ikea rug is pulled out from underneath the nesting instinct, but I digress.