It’s not every day that a largely forgettable Dreamworks yeti movie can come under fire from multiple national governments for violating a ruling by the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague. And yet, that’s exactly where Jill Culton’s Abominable—remember that one? It’s the one where Zendaya wasn’t Meechee—finds itself this week, having been pulled from theaters in both Vietnam and the Philippines over an image on a map in one of the movie’s scenes.
The issue—as it increasingly is, in the international cinema scene—is, of course, China. Abominable not only takes place in a fairly idyllic version of the Chinese countryside, but is a co-production between Universal and Chinese Pearl Studio, a tactic that’s gotten more and more common as Hollywood moviemakers seek to tap the massive and lucrative Chinese market. (It at least partially worked, too; Abominable didn’t make a ton of money, but the $14 million the film brought in in the country helped it at least put itself into the black on its $75 million budget.) But it’s also created a mild diplomatic problem—which is presumably what’s going to be the only thing anybody actually remembers about this particular blip in the bizarre late-2010s yeti movie trend by the time 2020 rolls around.
To explain all this, we’re going to have to—as we so often do, here at The A.V. Club—take a brief trip back to the Sino-French War of 1885, the resolution of which failed to expressly mark out the barriers of China’s control of the South China Sea, and especially those parts of it that are just miles off the coast of Malaysia, the Philippines, and Vietnam. After World War II, China began asserting that essentially all of the territory in the sea, including several islands in close proximity to other countries, belonged to it. Said claims were represented by drawing what’s now known as the Nine-Dash Line on maps of the region, a vague-ish boundary that all three countries (plus neighboring Indonesia) have loudly protested ever since. It all came to a head in 2013, when the Philippines took the issue to the Court of Arbitration in The Hague. Although China refused to participate in the arbitration—and denies the validity of the ruling to this day—the arbiters found that there was no basis to the country’s claims to “historical rights” over the territory, and ruled that the Nine-Dash Line was in violation of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. (C’mon, you knew you weren’t going to get through today without reading about the UNCLOS, right?)
What the flying fuck does all this have to do with Dreamworks’ silly little yeti movie? Well, there’s a scene in the film that features a map. And, wouldn’t you know it, there are those 9 dashes, readily apparent across a wide swathe of maritime territory. (To be fair, the scene in question takes place in China, where maps do still carry the line.) Upon seeing the line in the movie, Malaysia, Vietnam, and the Philippines all promptly flipped their shit; Malaysia just excised the scene in question, but the other two countries have now ordered the movie to be pulled from theaters. That’s not going to be a financial disaster for Universal or anything—none of these countries are, well, China, in terms of their contributions to the international box office—but it does mean that Abominable has gone from being basically the best(-ish) of the recent glut of sasquatch movies, to being a very weird data point in this ongoing debate that’s happening as Hollywood contorts itself (or doesn’t, in a few notable cases), in order to get access to the country’s massive but restrictive market.
And sure, you could argue that there was no way that Pearl Studio could have gotten away with not including the line in the film, given how tightly the Chinese government watches this kind of material. But that only emphasizes the subtle ways that partnering with Chinese studios can alter the trajectories and messaging of a film; after all, a map that probably looked perfectly benign to at least some of the producers at Universal managed to be an outright provocation to several countries where they were trying to sell the film.