Often, the controversy surrounding a brand new Martin Scorsese picture is around the violence depicted in many of his films, or perhaps the glorification of drug use as seen in the prevalent use of ‘cocaine’ in The Wolf of Wall Street. Though, in 1997, it was the political objections of the Chinese government to Martin Scorsese’s film Kundun that caused unexpected controversy.
Scorsese’s historic biographical epic followed Tibet’s fourteenth Dalai Lama from childhood to adulthood, as he dealt with Chinese oppression and other problems that faced the leader. Due to be distributed across China by Disney, the film quickly gained controversy even before its release as the country’s leaders hotly opposed its release. Disney’s surprising attitude differed from Universal Pictures, which had earlier “turned down the chance to distribute Kundun for fear of upsetting the Chinese”.
The grounds to which the country opposed the film were that, to China, the Tibetan spiritual leader is a dangerous separatist figure, so to celebrate his life is profoundly objectionable on political grounds. Despite this, Disney backed down, and as a result Martin Scorsese, writer Melissa Mathison and several other members of the production team were banned by the Chinese government from ever entering China as a result of making the film. The ties between China and The Walt Disney Co. were severely damaged and as further punishment to the company, all Disney films and television cartoons were banned in the country.
Apologising in 1998, Disney tried to mend relations and “undo the damage”, with former Disney CEO Michael Eisner having sent his regards for offending Communist Chinese sensitivities, calling the film “a stupid mistake”. Continuing, Eisner elaborated on his apology, stating: “The bad news is that the film was made; the good news is that nobody watched it. Here I want to apologize, and in the future we should prevent this sort of thing, which insults our friends, from happening”.
Eventually, the damages were undone, leading to a deal to open Shanghai Disneyland by 2016, Martin Scorsese’s status was also recovered in China when his 3D family adventure Hugo was handed a limited release in 2012. More recently, Scorsese’s The Irishman cleared Chinese censors, with Media Asia’s general manager Fred Tsui stating, “We are as honoured as we are excited to have the opportunity to bring this prestigious project to the audience in China”.
Continuing, Tsui added, “The film has every indication of becoming a magnum opus that will go down in film history as one of the best gangster flicks ever made”.
After the blip of 1997s Kundun, it looks as though the relationship between Martin Scorsese and the Chinese film industry could finally be resolved.