Is DreamWorks courting controversy over the South China Sea?

Several Asian governments have criticised and banned the film Abominable over a map showing China’s territorial claims.

Abominable film
Abominable is the story of a young Chinese girl who helps a yeti make his way home to Mount Everest [Evan Agostini/Invision/AP Photo]

DreamWorks’s latest animated film, Abominable, will skip Malaysian cinemas after producers decided against cutting out a scene showing a map supporting Chinese claims on the disputed South China Sea.

Vietnam already pulled the US-Chinese production over a fleeting image of the so-called nine-dash line, a vague and broken outline depicting much of the resource-rich sea as Chinese territory.

China‘s claims to the sea overlap with those of Vietnam, Malaysia and other regional governments.

Malaysian film distributor United International Pictures said in a brief statement on Monday that it “has decided not to make the censor cut required by the Malaysian censor board and as such will not be able to release the film in Malaysia,” where it was due in theatres on November 7. The company declined to give further details.

Universal Pictures is the parent company of DreamWorks Animation, which coproduced the film with China-based Pearl Studio. 

Why is the map in the film?

Abominable’s plot has nothing to do with the territorial dispute. The film tells the story of Yi, a Chinese girl who discovers a yeti living on her roof and helps it back to its home on Mount Everest. 

The controversy centres around a scene in Yi’s makeshift shed where there is large map of East Asia on the wall showing a series of dashes in the South China Sea. The map is also briefly seen in the English-language trailer for the film.

Abominable screen grab
In the film Abominable, a large map of East Asia on a main character’s wall shows a series of dashes in the South China Sea – territorial marks that have sparked controversy in Malaysia, Vietnam and the Philippines [Screengrab/DreamWorks] 

China uses the U-shaped nine-dash line to illustrate its claims over vast expanses of the South China Sea, including large swaths of what Vietnam regards as its continental shelf, where it has awarded oil concessions.

It is not clear why the map is included in the film. For Chinese audiences, and the Chinese production company, it will appear accurate and familiar.

But cinema-goers in Vietnam have taken to social media to accuse China of attempting to use the map to normalise its claims on the territory.

Why is the South China Sea so controversial?

The South China Sea is a hotly-disputed territory, through which one-third of the world’s shipping passes. It is also home to lucrative fisheries and huge oil and gas reserves.

China issued a map in 1947 stating its territorial claims, which it says are supported by history. However, Vietnam has clashing historical claims on parts of the territory.

Added to this, the Philippines points to its proximity to some of the islands in the territory, as well as the fact that they have long been populated by Filipinos, as support for its own claims.


Taiwan, Malaysia and Brunei also insist parts of the territory fall within their economic exclusion zones as defined by United Nations laws.

In 2016, an international tribunal invalidated China’s vast claims in a case brought by the Philippines, but the ruling was rebuffed by Beijing.

China has continued to assert its claims to the sea by building and staffing outposts on man-made islands and deploying ships in the area.

How have other countries reacted?

In the Philippines, Foreign Minister Teodoro Locsin Jr called for a boycott of DreamWorks productions, while Vietnam banned the film last week. 

The Vietnamese ban came during an increasingly tense and months-long standoff between its ships and a Chinese survey vessel and escort ships in disputed Vanguard Bank off Vietnam. 

Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad reiterated his call on Monday for a peaceful resolution to the dispute as he warned that an increase in Chinese and US military presence could threaten the vital shipping route.

“In the Malacca Straits and the South China Sea, the passage of ships is still free without obstruction but once people start sending warship[s], then we have a problem. 

There might be accidents and as we know accidents may lead to war,” Mohamad told local media on the sidelines of a conference.

The United States, which also frequently butts heads with China over the South China Sea, has responded well to the film, which made $25.8m in its opening weekend, according to Box Office Mojo, a revenue tracking website.

Source: Al Jazeera, News Agencies