For the raunchy '21 & Over,' a very different message in China

When audiences turn out for “21 & Over” in theaters beginning March 1, they’ll see a celebration of a prominent aspect of the American college experience -- the one involving beer pong, pep rallies and sexually liberated sorority girls.

The film’s Chinese audiences, however, will be exposed to a different message: the perils of a hedonistic West and the importance of embracing one’s roots.

That’s because two different versions of the R-rated Hollywood comedy have been cut. There’s the  version that most of the world will see that that takes place entirely in the U.S. and expounds on the joys of campus distraction--and an edition for Chinese moviegoers that contains a more, er, wholesome message.

It’s the result of an initiative by the Ryan Kavanaugh-led Relativity Media. Shortly before shooting began at the University of Washington last year, Relativity executives told filmmakers and cast to plan on a trip to the city of Linyi in Shandong province once they wrapped here. Kavanaugh had brokered a larger deal with a consortium of Chinese companies, including the government-owned Huaxia Film Distribution Co., that, among other benefits, would yield partial funding for the  $12-million comedy. The scenes shot there are now going into a substantively different cut customized for China.

As Hollywood and China strengthen their ties -- Marvel Studios’ upcoming “Iron Man 3” is  one of several big-budget productions shot partly in the Middle Kingdom – the move raises significant questions about the lengths to which a Hollywood entity should go to secure financing and revenue for its film. (Because of the China connection, the movie will now also be granted permission to open in the country’s theaters, a much sought-after privilege for Western film companies.)

Written and directed by “The Hangover” scribes Jon Lucas and Scott Moore, produced by Mandeville films (“The Muppets”) and starring emerging comedy star Miles Teller, “21 & Over” follows three male undergrads, including the overachieving Jeff Chang (Justin Chon) as they step out for a night of debauchery to commemorate Chang’s milestone birthday. As the group makes its way to various parties, details emerge about the birthday boy, who is feeling parental-induced anxiety over a medical-school application.  The trio go on to cement their friendship by drinking themselves into oblivion and hooking up with a series of women.

But where the American edition ultimately celebrates youthful independence in the face of familial expectation and generally glorifies Greek life, the Chinese version communicates a very different lesson.

"'21 & Over,' in China, is sort of a story about a boy who leaves China, gets corrupted by our wayward, Western partying ways and goes back to China a better person,” Lucas said. The directors include new scenes at the start and end to make that point; in the Chinese version, Changstarts off at a Chinese college campus and returns there at the end of the film after what turns out to be an ill-conceived stint as a transfer student in the U.S. 

In the past, China-specific versions tended to be the result of subtraction, as censors removed scenes from films such as “Men in Black 3” that they deemed offensive. But “21” is an example of a different, newer type of China release, one in which China-centric scenes have been inserted by Hollywood filmmakers to essentially create two different versions of a movie.

Last year, producers on the Endgame Entertainment-financed, Sony-released “Looper” added footage of Shanghai for a locally released cut.

This takes matters further. The altered “Looper” served mainly to give China more air time and did not fundamentally change the essence of the film.  In “21 & Over,” the new scenes not only give the film a different feel but in fact also actively cast the U.S. in a bad light.

A Relativity spokesperson declined to comment for this story.

Though a movie very different from the one they originally wrote will be released under their names in China, the directors say it’s a compromise they can live with.

“I think any filmmaker deals with it,” Moore said. “I imagine 'Avatar,' when it’s released in China and they dub it, they sort of get to change whatever they want. I think it just comes with the territory -- if you want to release it in China, they get to spin it however they want.” (More from him and Lucas in an upcoming story on the pair.)

It remains to be seen how Chinese audiences will respond to a tailor-made “21 & Over.” Though Relativity hopes that a customized China version will play better to local audiences, in several previous instances involving edited films, enterprising Chinese moviegoers have gone online to compare their version with pirated Western copies and complained about the movie being shown them.

Although they wrote the scenes and were involved in the editing process, Lucas and Moore acknowledge that their Chinese partners had  a fair amount of creative input. “We just took a stab at the pages and our Chinese liaison gave some notes,” Moore said.

In any event, he said, any pushback they could offer would go only so far. “They dub it all anyway, so whatever dialogue we all wrote that’s in English, we don’t actually know what the Chinese version says.”

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