As anticipated, the Vietnamese government has reportedly banned the distribution of the “Barbie” movie due to a controversial map showing disputed Chinese territorial claims in the South China Sea. The decision, made by the National Film Evaluation Council, has generated intrigue and raised tensions between Vietnam and China.
According to state media outlets such as Vietnam Express, posters advertising the “Barbie” movie were swiftly removed from movie distributors’ websites following the government’s decision on Monday. The film, featuring Margot Robbie as Barbie and Ryan Gosling as Ken in director Greta Gerwig’s comedic take on their “perfect” world, was scheduled to open in Vietnamese theaters on July 21.
Reports quote Vi Kien Thanh, director general of the Vietnam Cinema Department, as stating that the ban was implemented due to a map displayed in the film showing China’s contentious “nine-dash line.” This line represents Beijing’s expansive territorial claims, encroaching into waters also claimed by Vietnam and neighboring countries.
The “nine-dash line” issue holds sensitive significance for China and its neighboring nations, often leading to tense standoffs in the disputed waters of the South China Sea. Chinese fishing boats and military vessels have been increasingly assertive in these areas, triggering concerns among ASEAN nations such as Indonesia, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei, and the Philippines.
When questioned about the matter, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Mao Ning reiterated China’s long-standing position on the South China Sea issue and urged against linking it to cultural or people-to-people exchanges. China has historically been sensitive about how its national image and border claims are depicted in entertainment and by businesses, often retaliating against companies that challenge its stance.
It is common for companies to acquiesce to Chinese complaints, fearing potential repercussions and exclusion from the lucrative Chinese market. Even Hollywood films have made adjustments to their content based on expected reactions from the ruling Communist Party and the highly nationalistic Chinese public.
Notably, when an international court ruled in 2016 that the “nine-dash line” had no legal basis and that the Philippines was entitled to an exclusive economic zone in the disputed area, China vehemently rejected the ruling.
Warner Bros. offices were closed for the July 4 holiday, preventing immediate comments on the situation. In a similar incident in 2019, Vietnam canceled showings of the film “Abominable” after audience complaints about a scene featuring the “nine-dash line.” The Philippines called for a boycott of all DreamWorks releases in protest, and Malaysia demanded the scene be removed from the movie.
As the ban on the “Barbie” movie sparks further controversy, it raises questions about the delicate balance between cultural expression, political sensitivities, and economic considerations in the region.