In a film scene that has roiled a segment of the Chinese moviegoing public, two American soldiers share a strange bit of banter.
“Look at my knees!” blurts a soldier played by Jin Au-Yeung, a Chinese-American rapper known as MC Jin, as he rides in the open back of a military vehicle. “What kind of knees are these?”
A moment later, he answers his own question: “Chi-nese.”
The scene caused a stir in China, one of the world’s biggest movie markets and, in the wake of a pandemic that has closed theaters around the world, perhaps its most important.
The movie, “Monster Hunter,” an action film based on a popular video game, was pulled from Chinese theaters by its distributor, which promised that the scene would be cut.
Critics in China wrote online that the dialogue was insulting, reading it as a reference to a racist playground taunt implying that people of Asian descent are dirty.
On Sunday, Constantin Film, a German company that co-produced the film, issued an apology to audiences.
“There was absolutely no intent to discriminate, insult or otherwise offend anyone of Chinese heritage,” it said.
The company said it had “listened to the concerns expressed by Chinese audiences and removed the line that has led to this inadvertent misunderstanding.”
“Monster Hunter” was released in China on Friday, three weeks before the United States release date on Dec. 25. But by the end of the weekend, tickets could no longer be found on Maoyan, a Chinese ticketing application.
The film was also produced by Sony Pictures and by Tencent, the Chinese internet conglomerate with a growing presence in movies. Neither responded to requests for comment.
The fate of “Monster Hunter” illustrates China’s growing power in the film industry. Last year, it sold nearly $10 billion in tickets, according to government figures, and industry experts forecast that it would soon overtake the American market as the world’s largest.
The global pandemic has accelerated the trend. China’s movie theaters have gradually reopened as the country has contained the coronavirus within its borders. In the United States, by contrast, studios are making plans to release movies over streaming services as infections spread and deaths rise.
China can be a complicated market, however. While its avid moviegoers love “The Transformers” and other big-budget American movies, studios must manage Beijing’s strict censorship, its desire to build a domestic film industry and cultural differences that can turn off or offend audiences.
Big studios have teamed up with Chinese partners and sprinkled their casts with local actors, but the efforts aren’t always rewarded. In 2017, critics accused “The Great Wall,” an action film starring Matt Damon, of whitewashing. They have said that in other films, Chinese-American actors have been dropped as seeming afterthoughts into scenes.
Seeking Chinese audiences has become particularly fraught as feelings of nationalism spread online, sometimes egged on by official Chinese media. Other companies, including Mercedes-Benz and the hotel chain Marriott, have also been pressured into apologizing to China, after online critics or state media criticized their advertising or other actions.
“Chinese audiences can’t bear having grit in their eye, and those who want to make money should weigh it up,” one film critic in China wrote on Weibo.
Another wrote: “What makes people angry” is when foreigners “use Chinese investment money to make movies to insult you.”
The umbrage is an example of China’s growing and excessive nationalism, fed by a Chinese Communist Party narrative “that foreigners aren’t respecting China,” said Kevin Carrico, a senior lecturer in Chinese studies at Monash University in Melbourne, Australia.
“There are quite a few leaps of logic and wild associations that seem to be the source of offense here, for what is as far as I can understand just a dumb joke or a play on words,” he said.
Some online critics pointed to the Chinese subtitles as proof that at least somebody involved in the production of the English-language movie found the scene problematic. The Chinese subtitles swapped the word “Chi-nese” with “gold,” in what some perceived to be an attempt to localize a difficult-to-translate pun. According to a Chinese proverb, men who have metaphorical “gold beneath their knees” do not bow down or submit to others
“Monster Hunter” had an initial estimated budget of about $60 million, according to The Hollywood Reporter. It stars Milla Jovovich as the leader of a team of elite soldiers somehow transported to a land full of savage beasts. Tony Jaa, a Thai action star, plays the titular character, who tries to help them survive.
Amber Wang and Christopher Buckley contributed reporting.