One year ago, DreamWorks Animations found itself in hot water when viewers in South East Asia noticed a map in Abominable (2019) that features the Nine-Dash Line — a unilaterally defined line that marks China’s territorial claims to the majority of the South China Sea. Vietnam and Malaysia (both contest China’s claims) banned the film outright, and government officials in the Philippines urged viewers to boycott the film.
Due to this controversial scene, some have gone as far as calling the film a piece of overt Communist propaganda. Is it?
To provide a bit of historical context, the Nine-Dash Line is a vaguely defined demarcation line that China has used to mark its unilaterally proclaimed territory in the South China Sea for nearly 100 years . In an international court case brought against China by the Philippines in 2016, an arbitration tribunal ruled against China’s claim to the territories under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). In short, China’s claims are in violation of international maritime law, but the government continues to use the line in its maps and as justification for its aggressive actions in the South China Sea.
Enter Abominable. This animated film follows the journey of Yi (voiced by Chloe Bennet) and Everest, a yeti whom Yi finds on her roof and vows to guide back to his home in the Himalayas. Prior to their fateful encounter, Yi examines a map on which she has outlined her dream trip across China, and so displays the infamous dotted line marking the South China Sea.
Visible for only three seconds of screen time, the cameo is brief and subtle — I may have even missed it had I not known to look for it. However, by including this map, the film undeniably helps propagate a worldview that advances China’s unilateral interests.
The devil’s advocate could argue that a child of impressionable age (assumed to be the intended audience of this animated feature) probably does not understand the line’s geopolitical significance. Even if they notice it, they probably do not know its meaning. If the viewer is old and knowledgeable enough to recognize it as the Nine-Dash Line, they can make an informed opinion and decide for themselves whether they accept or dispute China’s worldview.
But perhaps the map’s subtlety serves its own problematic function. Even if a viewer only subconsciously notices the line, or they see it without understanding the implications, repeated exposure to this imagery could condition the viewer to expect a map of the South China Sea to contain these dashes. No geopolitical expertise required. Merely watching Abominable would not accomplish this effect alone, but it begs the question of what would happen to an eight-year-old who is also exposed to this imagery in other films or media.
It is probably true, then, that including this map even for its brief screen time indeed qualifies as propaganda. So why did DreamWorks include the map in Abominable? When the Malaysian government demanded that the scene be cut, why did Universal (DreamWorks's parent company) knowingly forgo the Malaysian theatrical market to protect a piece of Chinese propaganda?
The answer lies in the fact that Abominable was co-produced by DreamWorks Animations and Pearl Studio, a Chinese film company. Originally established in 2012 as “Oriental DreamWorks,” Pearl Studio was partially owned by DreamWorks until 2017 when NBCUniversal sold its 45% stake in the company. Now entirely controlled by CMC Capital Partners, Pearl still collaborates closely with DreamWorks to produce films such as Abominable. The map is probably a contribution from Pearl Studio artists and animators, who accept—or have been taught to accept—the Nine-Dash line as a necessary component of any legitimate map of the South China Sea.
Although the executives of DreamWorks/Universal did not release an official reason, one can assume that they declined to omit the scene because they do not want to upset their Chinese co-production partners — or worse yet, the Chinese government. Foregoing revenues in Malaysia, Vietnam, and the Philippines certainly comes at a cost, but such costs become necessary in the effort to keep doors open to China’s behemoth film market.
The Chinese market is both easily upset (i.e. China banned Christopher Robin (2018) due to popular memes that compare Chinese President Xi Jinping’s likeness to that of Winnie the Pooh) and hard to enter (the government places restrictions such as black-out periods, limited exhibition periods, and import quotas on foreign films). DreamWorks initially helped establish Pearl in order to attain greater access to the Chinese film market, as their co-productions such as Kung Fu Panda 3 and Abominable are subject to lighter restrictions. They would not risk this access over three seconds of controversial imagery.
It isn’t the first time Hollywood has bent over backwards to gain or maintain access to Chinese film markets. Chinese astronomers played a key role in returning Matt Damon’s character safely back to Earth in The Martian (2015). In World War Z (2013), Paramount changed a plot point such that it no longer identified China as the origin of a dangerous pandemic — a bit ironic given the current COVID-19 situation.
After angering the central government by releasing Tibet-based Kundun (1997), Disney’s then-CEO Michael Eisner personally flew to China in 1998 and apologized for releasing this film. This apology preluded negotiations that would ultimately result in Shanghai Disneyland. One cannot help but wonder whether the cancellation of a different DreamWorks/Pearl co-production—a cinematic adaptation of popular book series Tibet Code — also resulted from the Chinese government’s sensitivity around Tibet. Abominable also fails to make any mention of Tibet despite it being the backdrop to Mt. Everest.
Money is king, and despite the propagandist qualities of including the Nine-Dash Line, Universal ultimately decided to keep the scene unaltered in order to appease its Chinese partners and the government backing them. The facts drip with irony: these film executives allowed their film to propagate propaganda of a Communist state for their own capitalistic interest. Only time will tell how far Hollywood is willing to go.