Even though Monster Hunter isn’t slated for a theatrical release in the United States until later this month, the video game adaptation from director Paul W.S. Anderson was already playing in Chinese theaters this past weekend. Well, at least that was the plan until a joke in the movie was perceived as being racially insensitive, prompting the removal of the film from all Chinese cinemas.

Monster Hunter debuted in China last week, but controversy stirred when a pirated clip from the film highlighted a line that was intended to be an innocuous joke. However, it was seen as a racist insult to the Chinese people and circulated widely on China’s social media site Weibo.

Theaters were given directives to cancel all upcoming screenings and issue refunds because a new version of the movie was being put together without the offending material. But the deed had already been done, and a new set of directives indicated that the new cut of the movie would also be suspended from playing in theaters.

So what’s the offensive material in question? Variety explained that the scene features co-star Jin Au-Yeung, better known as Asian-American rapper MC Jin, driving at high speed with another character. In the scene, Jin’s character shouts, “Look at my knees! What kind of knees are these? Chi-knees!”

Sounds harmless (if eye-rolling) enough, but apparently the wording of the subtitles is what sparked the racist interpretation, and it contains subtext that only really makes sense if you know both English and Chinese, but not one or the other. Here’s how the trade explains what made the joke land so poorly:

Chinese viewers were incensed after the exchange was interpreted as a reference to an old, racist schoolyard rhyme insulting Asians. “Chi-nese, Jap-a-nese, dir-ty knees, look at these,” it apparently sing-songs, accompanied by knee slaps and slant-eyed gestures.

This interpretation was subtly propelled forward by the Chinese subtitles. To localize the joke, translators made the dialogue a reference to a Chinese colloquialism about how men must have dignity and not kneel down easily. “Men have gold under their knees, and only kneel to the heavens and their mother,” the saying goes in rough translation, implying that any time a man kneels, it should be an occasion precious as gold.

The inference of a connection to the racist rhyme from the words “knees” and “Chinese” combined with the subtitles’ phrasing about kneeling down appears to have made many patriotic young viewers believe that the moment in English must be an obvious insult. Worse, many feel that the translation — which swaps in references to “gold” and makes no mention of “Chinese” — was a deliberate cover up of the offense.

This feels like miscommunication across the language barrier, and even more frustrating is that it comes from such a stupid joke that didn’t even need to be in the movie to begin with. It was clearly intended as a bit of levity during an epic fantasy action adventure, but now it’s going to blow up any chances of the film making more money at the Chinese box office. That’s especially frustrating for distributor Tencent, which is a Chinese entertainment company that produces many major movies for the nation and has partnered with Hollywood on several blockbusters over the years.

The controversy blew up so much in China that Capcom Asia, the company behind the Monster Hunter video game franchise, had to take to social media with a statement distancing themselves from the production of the movie. When Chinese fans suggested a boycott of the franchise, the company responded: “After learning your opinions about the movie Monster Hunter, we’ve collected everyone’s ideas and reported the situation to the relevant companies.”

This situation is not good for Sony Pictures either, who were likely hoping that international box office would help make up for the fact that the United States numbers won’t be very high due to the coronavirus pandemic. Chinese box office has become increasingly important, but the movie only managed to drum up $5.19 million in its first day, so maybe it wasn’t going to make much of a dent in the box office anyway. Plus, there’s always Japan, where the video game series remains immensely popular. But the fallout in China will certainly need to be addressed to avoid any potential negative impact on future movies from Sony and Tencent.

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