“Ghosts are real, that much I know,” is the first line spoken in Guillermo del Toro’s swooning Gothic thriller Crimson Peak, which opened to solid reviews but a tepid box office last weekend. In today’s global film economy, sub-par earnings in America don’t necessarily doom a film: Del Toro’s last effort, Pacific Rim, made up for its mediocre domestic performance by being a big hit overseas, especially in China. Producers are hoping the same will happen for Crimson Peak, but there’s one big problem. China’s Film Bureau doesn’t allow movies with ghosts in them, and certainly not movies that assert they’re “real.”
The intricacies of getting a film approved by the China Film Bureau, an executive branch of the country’s Communist government, are largely unknown to Western audiences. Sometimes it can take months or years to secure a release; many major films have run afoul of unforeseen diplomatic pressures. In 2008, The Dark Knight’s planned rollout in China was cancelled because of “cultural sensitivities” (likely to do with scenes set in Hong Kong involving a money-laundering character), which significantly hampered the film’s worldwide box-office take. But Crimson Peak’s problem is an even bigger one. The Film Bureau objects to films with distinctly spiritual content, because they “promote cults or superstition” in violation of the Communist Party’s secular principles—a major problem for a movie chock-full of ghosts.