Quentin Tarantino’s Oscar-winning film Django Unchained was slated to open in Chinese theaters on April 11, and Tarantino was reported to have edited the film himself so as to satisfy the Chinese censors. And obviously he succeeded.
At the last minute though on Thursday, Chinese authorities ordered the movie to be pulled from theaters, and the order came with a panting urgency. “I was watching the first screening of Django in Mejia Theater, Sanlitun (北京三里屯美嘉影院),” Weibo user @血一刀 reported, “one minute into the show, it stopped! Theater workers came in and said the State Administration of Radio, Film and Television and the theater chain both called to postpone the movie! What the heck is going on?”
Online and at the box offices, lots of tickets have been sold due to wide anticipation of the first Tarantino movie shown in Chinese theaters and the star power of Lenardo DiCaprio and Jamie Foxx. Theaters and ticket vendors were ordered to refund the tickets, unprecedented in the history of online ticket sale.
An unhappy theater operator revealed the harshness of the government’s notice, “Any theaters that download the encrypted key for Django and show the movie presumptuously will be penalized severely. To me this is not something due to ‘technical reasons.’ We suspect that the film’s producer offended some people; otherwise it is just unthinkable.”
WSJ’s China Real Time Report mentioned online speculations that the urgent cease has to do with a bit of nudity at the end of movie, but both critics and netizens quickly pointed out that violence and nudity are not rarities in Chinese film market.
I don’t know whether it is business politics, nudity, violence, or whatnot. Nor have I watched the movie. What interests me is how netizens are interpreting the abrupt ban (some seem to have watched the movie, others apparently haven’t):
“The reason for the ban lies probably in the ending where the slaves send their master and his running dogs to their death. That may have stirred someone’s mind (@yigeniaoren).”
“Dr. Schultz’s didn’t just remove Django’s chains; more importantly, he taught him how to be free (@na_sheishei).”
“With the two movies, V for Vendetta and Django Unchained, the communist bandits in China must have felt they are just like the bad guys. No doubt they have seen in the villains their own images (@rushiewen).”
“In this scene, Django walks across the plantation where former slaves are swinging joyously on swings. This probably is why the movie is barred: being a slave long enough, you either feel content or you rise up to rebel in destructive manners (@isaac).”
“Which slave owners will allow slaves to watch a movie about freedom from slavery? That’s why Django Unchained is called off (@tartarroo).”
“A bunch of slaves were excited and getting ready to watch a movie about the liberation of slaves but were chased away by the master (@billsoong). Hahahaha!”
There have been reports today that Django could be resumed late this month in Chinese theaters, provided that director Tarantino will cut what the Chinese censors ask him to cut. But if netizens keep volunteering their reasons for the ban, I’m afraid there will be no resumption of the movie and the reasons will be exactly the ones they have offered—To too many, the movie feels too much like a parable for liberation and freedom.
The post-totalitarian regime in China, you see, is caught in a tight spot: Every time they import an American movie, there is the danger of it reflecting badly on themselves: for every style of Hollywood villain, netizens will quickly find a Chinese parallel. Urban management enforcers look like thugs, security police look like gangsters, and the regime itself looks a lot like Jonathan Pryce.