China yanks 'Avatar' for homegrown film

Days before the peak movie-going Lunar New Year holiday, China swapped the blockbuster from 2D theaters for a film about Confucius. “Avatar” had raised uncomfortable parallels with the hot-button issue of exploitation by property developers.

Andy Wong/AP
Director James Cameron (c.) speaks while producer Jon Landau (r.) and Jim Gianopulos, chief executive of Fox Filmed Entertainment (l.) look on during a press conference for "Avatar" in Beijing, on Dec. 23, 2009.
Alexander F. Yuan/AP
Hong Kong actor Chow Yun-fat speaks during a news conference for his movie "Confucius" in Beijing on January 14.

News that cinemas across China have been told to pull the 2D version of “Avatar," the second-highest grossing film of all time, has provoked a torrent of speculation as to why.

Nobody doubts that the authorities are behind the decision by the state-run movie distributor China Film Group, even though nobody from any government agency possibly involved was returning calls on Tuesday.

That didn’t stop bloggers from offering their own interpretations of the surprise move, which was first reported by a Hong Kong newspaper and later confirmed by 20th Century Fox, the film’s international distributor.

“Avatar” has grossed $76 million in ticket sales here since it opened two weeks ago – which makes it a record-breaking blockbuster in Chinese terms. Though the 3D version will continue to be on show on the country’s 3D screens, the 2D version will close nationwide on Jan 22.

It will be replaced on 1,628 screens by “Confucius,” a biopic of the ancient Chinese sage whose philosophy is finding increasing official favor in Beijing.

Hollywood tale hits close to home

The plot of “Avatar,” on the other hand, could be seen to parallel all sorts of contemporary Chinese problems. The tale of a people threatened with eviction by outsiders in search of minerals could, for example, be thought to echo the plight of the Tibetans.

But the similarity that resonates with ordinary Chinese is between the invaders’ rapacious attack on the Na’vis in “Avatar” and greedy property developers’ routine evictions of householders and farmers in China to make way for new buildings.

Such evictions are the most common cause of violent disturbances in China, according to official statistics.

“Avatar is a successful model in … fighting against violent demolition and we can learn from it in both the strategies and tactics,” wrote one blogger.

Some protesters have already used the movie to draw attention to their plight. One blog carried a photo of a building under construction in the southern province of Guangdong draped with banners proclaiming, “We are innocent Na’vis on the planet Pandora” and “The Avatar reality show is on.”

The Chinese authorities would naturally be alarmed if they thought “Avatar” might feed social unrest. But there might also be a straightforwardly commercial reason, some bloggers suggested, for the decision to replace a foreign blockbuster with a homegrown film just before the Chinese New Year – a peak movie season.

“They are envious,” said Li Ni on the Douban portal. “They could not make something like that themselves so they got green.

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