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'Bohemian Rhapsody' is going to China. But will gay-themed biopic be censored?

China, home to the second-largest theatrical box office behind the U.S., frequently cracks down on LGBTQ content in movies.
Image: Rami Malek
Rami Malek as Freddie Mercury in "Bohemian Rhapsody".Alex Bailey / Twentieth Century Fox

"Bohemian Rhapsody," the smash-hit biopic of Queen frontman Freddie Mercury, will be theatrically released in China, 20th Century Fox confirmed Wednesday — a surprise move given the country's history of restricting or censoring movies featuring LGBTQ characters.

It was not immediately clear if scenes in the film showing Mercury — played by Oscar-winning actor Rami Malek — kissing other men would be re-edited or cut entirely. The Hollywood Reporter, citing unnamed sources, said "at least one minute" would be trimmed to excise drug use and sexual content.

The announcement comes amid reports that one of two Chinese television networks that live-streamed the Academy Awards censored part of Malek's acceptance speech Sunday night. Mango TV, one of the country's leading TV channels, apparently replaced the words "gay man" with "special group" in subtitles.

The release date was not immediately clear, but information on the Chinese social networking service Douban suggested the film would arrive in theaters there March 22.

The film will apparently receive a limited, boutique release by the country's National Alliance of Arthouse Cinemas, a group overseen by the state-sponsored China Film Archive and a consortium of commercial multiplex chains.

LGBTQ suppression

Homosexuality is not illegal in China. But the country, home to the second-largest theatrical box office behind the United States, frequently cracks down on LGBTQ content in both homegrown and imported movies. The content of films is regulated by the ruling Communist Party's propaganda department.

"Call Me By Your Name," the English-language art-house film about a gay romance, was pulled from the Beijing International Film Festival last year, and the 2005 queer landmark "Brokeback Mountain" was denied a release altogether.

American-produced blockbusters are sometimes altered to remove scenes or imagery deemed offensive. "Alien: Covenant," Ridley Scott's 2017 sci-fi thriller, was released in China without a scene in which Michael Fassbender kisses his clone.

China has long attempted to censor a variety of behavior in mass media, including drinking, drug use, religious extremism and graphic violence.

It also tries to block content that might embarrass the government. Martin Scorsese's Oscar-winning gangster saga, "The Departed," was denied a theatrical release partly over a scene that implied China sought to buy advanced military computer hardware from Boston mobsters.

American-produced movies, especially brand-name franchises, are massive draws in China, where hundreds of millions of moviegoers flock to the country's more than 40,000 screens every weekend. Entertainment industry analysts have predicted the country's box office will be the largest in the world by next year.

"Bohemian Rhapsody" has already grossed more than $860 million worldwide — including almost $105 million in Japan and more than $75 million in South Korea.

But the movie has stoked debate in the United States, where some critics have accused it of sanitizing Mercury's queer identity.

The film has also drawn scrutiny because of its original director, Bryan Singer, who was fired in the middle of production over what Fox described as unexplained absences. Singer faces multiple allegations of sexual assault, which he has denied.