AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
The new animated children's movie "Abominable" seems innocent enough. A Chinese girl finds a yeti, a mythical creature also known as the Abominable Snowman.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "ABOMINABLE")
CHLOE BENNET: (As Yi) He's not dangerous.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As Yeti, groaning).
BENNET: (As Yi) Look at him. He's a yeti.
CORNISH: She and her friends set out on a grand adventure to return the yeti to its home, but in Vietnam, the Philippines and Malaysia, the abomination in the movie is not the yeti but an image of a map of the South China Sea. NPR's Elizabeth Blair explains.
ELIZABETH BLAIR, BYLINE: "Abominable" is a co-production between the American studio DreamWorks and the Chinese company Pearl Studio. In a promotional interview, Pearl Studio producer Peilin Chou says since the movie is largely set in China, it was a great advantage to have Chinese artists working on it.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
PEILIN CHOU: They were kind of our gut check and authenticity check all throughout the film - everything from the look of the characters and the look of the landscapes to the personalities.
BLAIR: In one scene, the main character looks at a map of China and the surrounding countries.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "ABOMINABLE")
BENNET: (As Yi) Dad always wanted me to travel the world someday.
BLAIR: And on that map, there's a U-shaped dotted line that encompasses almost the entire South China Sea. It's known as the Nine-Dash Line.
JEFFREY WASSERSTROM: It's a big kind of land grab or sea grab.
BLAIR: Jeffrey Wasserstrom is the author of "China In The 21st Century: What Everyone Needs To Know." He says under international agreements, China does not have exclusive rights to the entire South China Sea, an area rich in resources and used for trade.
WASSERSTROM: But Beijing has just simply ignored that and called it an illegitimate ruling.
BLAIR: That is not OK with other much smaller countries in the region. The image of the map caused Vietnam to remove the movie from theaters, according to a Vietnamese official. On Twitter, the Philippines foreign secretary called for a boycott of DreamWorks. But Jeffrey Wasserstrom says the Nine-Dash Line is a common image in China. It's in textbooks and classroom maps. He says it helps China's communist government tell a story about its power to its own people.
WASSERSTROM: The Chinese Communist Party is asserting that every time that there is a reference to, visual or spoken, their view of the size of a China that they claim to legitimately rule, it has to be as big as possible.
BLAIR: There is a certain irony to the protests of the movie by small countries like Vietnam, says Wall Street Journal reporter Erich Schwartzel. He is writing a book about China and Hollywood.
ERICH SCHWARTZEL: It's often China that is punishing studios by rejecting a film or not showing a film and denying that market access. It's less common for a country like Vietnam or some of the other Southeast Asian countries that are responding to "Abominable" to counter China's portrayal.
BLAIR: Schwartzel adds even though "Abominable" was designed to appeal to Chinese audiences, it's not doing very well at the box office there.
Elizabeth Blair, NPR News.
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