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Why China is letting ‘Django Unchained’ slip through its censorship regime

One of last year’s most graphically violent American thrillers, Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained, has been approved by China’s famously strict censors to debut next month in Chinese cities.

China allows only 34 foreign films into the country every year, screening them for violence, sex, and sensitive political content. Because the country doesn’t use a film rating system, films are supposed to be “suitable for all ages,” and censors have been known to get hung up on all kinds of weird things. Karate Kid‘s debut in China was delayed because censors took issue with the presence of a Chinese villain; they also didn’t like that the stumbling main character in Kung Fu Panda is China’s national symbol. Recently, state censors cut 38 minutes, mostly of love scenes, from Cloud Atlas as well as a few scenes and dialogue from Skyfall.

Tarantino’s story of a slave’s revenge on his white master includes a healthy dose of bloody violence, nudity, and bad language—more problematic, it would seem, than a panda performing kung fu. This would be the first time a Tarantino film has debuted in Chinese movie theaters. The movie’s backers Sony Pictures Entertainment and The Weinstein Co. haven’t responded to our request for comment, but what gives?

For one, American films, especially action films, dominate the Chinese box office. Django Unchained has so far made $241 million overseas and $161 at home. Even if some of the sex and violence is removed, the film is likely to be very popular in China, which is the world’s second largest film market by box office revenues ($2.7 billion in 2012), after the US.

But perhaps another reason is that the film depicts one of America’s darker periods, when slavery was legal, which Chinese officials like to use to push back against criticism from the United States. In 2010, Beijing called the US a hypocrite for criticizing China’s human rights record.

Moreover, in classrooms and in state propaganda, America’s seizure of land from Native Americans and the US Civil War are well covered as a way to justify to Chinese citizens that every country fights for its territorial integrity. In other words, China is no different for insisting that Tibet, Xinjiang, and eventually Taiwan, be part of the mainland at all costs.

At a time when the Chinese public is angry over inequality, government corruption, and pollution, Tarantino’s film may be a graphic reminder that even the world’s most developed countries have had some serious problems of their own.

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