The issue of film censorship in China has been a particularly hot topic so far this year, beginning in January with loud protests and calls for reform after Skyfall was heavily edited to remove content such as James Bond killing a Chinese security guard, a prostitute working in the administrative region of Macau, and antagonist Silva mentioning torture by Chinese agents. Since China has no motion picture rating system, all films are subject to censorship by the State Administration of Radio, Film, and Television, a board which can deem material unsuitable for Chinese audiences on the basis of sex/nudity, language, violence, or content that is considered damaging to the sensibilities of the Chinese government and culture.
The Chinese release of Cloud Atlas stirred up the controversy once again in February, when 40 minutes (almost a quarter of the film's total running time) was cut from the original version, leaving many audience members frankly confused as to what was going on in the complex, interwoven narratives of the film. Domestic films are also subject to the same level of review, and several Chinese directors have complained that the SARFT's restrictions impose too many limits on their creative vision.
In comments published on an official Chinese news outlet in 2011, director Jia Zhangke stated that, "If I want to make the movie here, I have to portray all the communists as superheroes ... This kind of cultural over-cleanliness that bans the erotic, violent and terrifying is cultural naivety."
It's somewhat ironic, given the recent outcry, that one of the few Western films of this year to enter Chinese theaters relatively unscathed by the censors' cutting blade is also one of the more controversial films in recent memory in the United States. Deadline reports that Django Unchained has just been cleared for an April 11 release in China, with barely more than a minute's worth of cuts made to the overall running time. This means that Django Unchained will be Quentin Tarantino's first ever film to be released in China.
Despite the film winning two Academy Awards and being nominated for a further three, many audiences were divided on the topic of whether Tarantino took the irreverent slave-era revenge fantasy too far in the direction of blaxploitation and bad taste. The most notable outburst came from Spike Lee, who complained on Twitter that, "American slavery was not a Sergio Leone spaghetti western. It was a holocaust." He later added in an interview with VibeTV that he hadn't actually watched Django Unchained since he believed, "It'd be disrespectful to my ancestors to see that film." Donald Trump also denounced the film, calling it "the most racist movie I have ever seen."
It's difficult to say whether or not this is a step forward in the fight against media censorship in China. The lenient treatment of Django Unchained compared to Skyfall and Cloud Atlas may simply be due to a double-standard concerning what is considered "offensive" content by the SARFT. Despite its many scenes of violence and gore, Django Unchained has relatively little sexual content, whereas many of the scenes that were cut from Cloud Atlas included depictions of nudity and man-on-man kissing. By virtue of being set entirely in the USA, Django Unchained was also free of the portrayals of Chinese society that earned Skyfall such close scrutiny.
We'll have to wait and see if a general trend of censorship relaxation emerges, but for now we can at least call this good news for Quentin Tarantino and his Chinese fanbase.
Django Unchained is out on Blu-ray and DVD on April 16th 2013 in the USA, and will be in Chinese theaters starting April 11th 2013.