On April 11, Chinese authorities pulled Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained on the morning of its release, citing technical reasons. A trending report on Sina Weibo said that the film, which was set to be the director’s debut in Chinese theaters, was yanked when it was literally a minute into its first showing.
"After watching it for about a minute, it stopped!" wrote Weibo user Xue Yi Dao. "Staff then came in and said (film censors) … had called to say it had to be delayed!! Can someone tell me what's happening!!"
Those who ventured a guess as to just what happened could only assume it must have been either the violence or nudity in the original version of the film. Yet, the film had already passed through censors’ hands. Further, Taratino had already toned down Django’s gore factor for the film’s China release, reportedly tweaking footage to downplay the carnage, prompting critics and the audience to collectively scratch their heads over what enigmatic reasons could have caused the sudden shutdown.
Now, three weeks later the film has been reapproved for a May 7 release in China. Just what is going on here? The short answer is that Chinese censors are doing what they do best: cutting away. While this is true on one level, the process of getting Hollywood films to Chinese screens – about ten of which open daily – is increasingly becoming more of a dance than it is a process of submit-and-cut.
It bears noting that film censorship is not unique to China. If headlines are to be believed, iron fisted censorship and outright bans on films in Asia would seem to be routine. A casual perusal of news in the past few months seems to support that view.
In January the film Vishwaroopam was banned in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu for a vastly different reason: Muslim protests. The film was given the green light by censors roughly a week later. And just last week in Thailand, the documentary film Boundary about the Preah Vihear border dispute between Cambodia and Thailand was banned and then reapproved within a matter of days. The film touches on politically sensitive issues in an ongoing conflict that has erupted into violence in the past.
In these cases – and in many others across Asia – the films in question are most often domestic and touch on homegrown issues. In the case of China, however, Hollywood is almost always involved. The reason is clear-cut: In February 2012 Joe Biden and his then Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping reached a deal that would allow 14 more 3D and IMAX Hollywood films to screen in the country each year.
And that means a lot of money. Last year, China’s box office value jumped to U.S. $2.77 billion, up 30 percent on year. China’s total film industry generated U.S. $27 billion in revenue in 2012, of which foreign films accounted for 52 percent. In the past decade alone, China’s cinema market has exploded twenty-fold and is now the world’s second-largest.
Django Unchained is simply the latest in a series of Hollywood films – 34 are approved each year – to try and get a slice of this pie. Another recent example came in January when Chinese censors axed or altered parts of the latest installment in the seemingly inexhaustible James Bond series, Skyfall, released two months late in China due to the editing process. A scene that showed a Chinese security guard being shot by a French assassin and dialog referencing prostitution in Macau and torture by Chinese security forces got the axe in the Bond film. Men in Black 3, Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End, Cloud Atlas, Mission: Impossible 3 and Life of Pi met similar fates in China.
Significantly, filmmakers are not stopping at accepting cuts. They are now adding China-elements in an attempt to appeal to the Mainland’s massive audience. In one recent example, the Bruce Willis thriller Looper, Chinese actress Summer Qing was slotted in alongside Willis in scenes set in Shanghai and the Chinese countryside strictly to appeal to China. And in Iron Man 3, mainlanders will get a glimpse of starlet Fan Bingbing and footage shot in-country – which will be cut from the film outside of China.
Ultimately, this adaptability is nothing new for Hollywood, according to Frank Couvares, a professor of history and American Studies at Amherst College in Massachusetts, who said, “If back in the 1930s or ’40s the French objected to portraying the Foreign Legion as being overly harsh on Africans, or the British were unhappy that they were being shown as too colonialistic, then Hollywood would make the edits it needed to market its product.”