Censor leaves film industry’s No 2 market reeling on cutting-room floor

Booming Chinese industry lures Hollywood

A woman leaves a Beijing cinema advertising Django Unchained before it was banned. Photograph: AP

A woman leaves a Beijing cinema advertising Django Unchained before it was banned. Photograph: AP

Wed, Apr 17, 2013, 13:00

It’s lights, camera and action all week in Beijing, as the great and the good of the international film business descend on the Chinese capital for the Beijing International Film Festival, an event that showcases just how far the entertainment industry has come in China.

Hollywood heart-throb turned director Keanu Reeves will show the trailer for Man of Tai Chi , his feature film directorial debut, while the head of LucasFilm, Kathleen Kennedy, is also in town, keen to do business in the world’s fastest growing film market.

French film maker Luc Besson will unveil his latest project, an adaptation of Chinese bestselling novel Wolf Totem , and other big names will grace various red-carpet events, seminars and screenings at the eight-day event.

The days when going to the cinema in China meant watching a propaganda movie projected against a sheet on a wall are (almost entirely) over. Now Hollywood and other overseas film markets are keen for a slice of the Chinese film market, which is the No 2 country for box office, behind only the United States, and took more than €2.3 billion in box office receipts last year.

The film festival is very much about New China, but in the run-up to the event was a decision that is much more Old China than people would like to think about.

Quentin Tarantino’s slave-revenge fantasy epic Django Unchained was pulled from the screens in China on its opening day.

As the censors’ order was being carried out, the excising of the first Tarantino film from Chinese cinemas was tweeted wildly on Sina Weibo, the Chinese version of the banned social network. In some cases, the movie was stopped halfway through the screening.

The film may yet get a release in China, once some of the blood spatter has been removed and some other cuts. Most people were surprised the film was given the green light in the first place. Anyone who wanted to had already seen it on pirate DVD.

China’s censorship system is famously difficult to manoeuvre, especially for Chinese directors but also for foreign film-makers, who have to put up with a quota limiting the number of overseas films too.

But what was really significant was the public reaction.

The decision to chain Django has been met with anger even in the state-run media, and shows there is growing public dissatisfaction with the opaque censorship practices.

In a piece in the Global Times newspaper, under the heading “Django Unclothed does less harm to audiences than screeners’ whims,” Shi Chuan, vice-president of Shanghai Film Association, said: “I believe the unexpected cancellation will do far more damage to China’s image than the sight of Jamie Foxx’s bare bottom could do to a Chinese audience.”

Shi said that the explanation of “technical problems” was not enough to answer public questions. The departments involved should provide more detailed explanations.

He added: “Generally speaking, China’s censorship is too strict and overly rigid. Due to the development of the internet, audiences have a far wider choice than before. The standards of film censorship should also advance with the times. Otherwise, they will become an obstacle to film industry’s development.”

On Sina Weibo, Wu Daming wrote: “If it wasn’t forbidden, how many people would want to watch it? Now everybody is curious and people start will watching this movie every way they can. I feel sorry for the government. The internet is so amazing, how can you stop it?"

Another online commentator, Qingbing, asked: “Is it because the movie promotes the thoughts of ‘liberation and freedom’? Is China is trying to hide something?”

For the future, it doesn’t look like things will need to go that far. The Chinese market is simply too important these days, and the censorship will take place before the movie hits the screens.

The producers of Iron Man 3 are making a special edition just for China, and other overseas directors are making similar concessions. The star of the Iron Man films, Robert Downey jr, appeared in front of the Hall of Armour at the Forbidden City, the ancient imperial palace at the heart of Beijing, to launch the latest episode in the series.

The makers of Cloud Atlas cut nudity and scenes of men kissing, while some dialogue was completely removed, and the Chinese version of Cloud Atlas ended up being 40 minutes shorter than the original.

The latest James Bond movie, Skyfall, had a strong Chinese element to woo the burgeoning China market, with scenes in Macau and Shanghai. However, the Chinese version was also different from the version in other markets. A scene where Bond kills a Chinese security guard was cut, while dialogue about prostitution in Macau also ended up on the cutting room floor.