By Ying Zhu, Special to CNN
Editor’s note: Ying Zhu is professor and chair of the Media Culture Department at City University of New York-College of Staten Island and is currently working on the book 'The Sino-Hollywood Courtship.' The views expressed are the author’s own.
Django Unchained, Quentin Tarantino’s irreverent but brutal and profane film about slavery in America’s Deep South, has had China’s media and streets abuzz after it was banned from Chinese screens at the last minute. The move – which The Guardian says came with the dramatic pulling of the plug in a Beijing cinema less than a minute into a screening – came despite heavy promotion, including local media telephone interviews with star Leonardo DiCaprio. Emergency notices halting all screenings soon appeared at other cinemas.
No specific reason has been given for the ban, but speculation is rife that the full-frontal shots of male slaves and brief female nudity, together with the movie’s extreme violence and profanity, might have triggered the censors’ ire. Some media outlets tied to human rights groups have, for their part, been quick to connect the dots between the ban and the depictions of torture in the film, suggesting that the scenes might have unsettled Chinese officials concerned that audiences might see a parallel with the state’s own alleged torture of dissidents.
Regardless, the sudden move came as a shock to cinemas and audiences alike.
“To stop such a high-profile film on its first day of release in such a manner, to such immediate effect – it's really unheard of," one local theater manager told the Guardian. Tarantino fans, meanwhile, took to Weibo (China's version of Twitter) to express their frustration, and the film’s Chinese publicists have announced that they are working hard to secure a new release date.
The drama is reminiscent of the fuss generated back in 2009, when Chinese officials abruptly removed Avatar from 2-D screening rooms to make way for a heavily promoted domestic film, Confucius. Though Avatar continued in its 3-D format, Chinese theater chains and audiences took to social media in huge numbers to express their support for the Oscar-winning film. The government eventually backed down, and Avatar was soon back in all theaters at the expense of the insipid Confucius.
None of this is new – movie censorship in China dates back to the late Qing Dynasty. In 1907, a domestic film, Jian se chimi (Obsession) was banned for its supposedly graphic portrayal of sexual activity. In China, entertainment is supposed to teach moral lessons, not push cultural/artistic boundaries or expand markets. It should come as no surprise, then, that early Chinese cultural guardians found the violence in Hollywood films excessive, and a threat to the moral fabric of Chinese society. (And it wasn’t just the violence – as Prof. Zhiwei Xiao notes, one commentator warned over Hollywood’s musicals, with their “forest made of women’s legs and the permeation of decadent music.”)
Such sanitizing of movies has worked both ways – at one point, Zhao says, “a Chinese who previously served on the Nationalist government’s film censorship board was hired as a Hollywood consultant to make sure ‘China pictures’ would conform to Chinese moral codes.” While making The Good Earth, he adds, “MGM carefully evaluated the China ‘angle,’ studying a Chinese film dealing with rural life, soliciting opinions from Chinese cultural elites, and making a number of adjustments to the film’s plot and characterization.”
This was by no means an isolated incident during the period, and may have contributed to the popularity of Hollywood movies in the Republic era, when American films made up more than 85 percent of the films screened in China. And while domestic production companies resented Hollywood’s market dominance, local distributors and theater chains salivated over Hollywood films. Indeed, a local movie theater’s status “was often measured by its ability to win a contract with Hollywood for new releases”.
Fast forward to the 1990s, and Hollywood returned to China with a vengeance, with cash starved Chinese studios lobbying hard for the right to distribute Hollywood films as a sure way of generating profits. Still, the privilege of distributing imports was tied to studio performance, with studios producing “quality” domestic pictures awarded the right to distribute the big imports (The quota was one big import for one quality domestic film). Generally speaking, then as now, Chinese screeners were Hollywood’s closest allies, while Chinese filmmakers would often try to appeal to nationalist sentiment to try to build opposition to U.S. films.
But even as Chinese production companies and theater chains frequently find themselves at odds, an emerging market force has gone largely unnoticed – the rise of the Chinese audience.
The fact is that China watchers have generally paid far too much attention to the country’s policymakers and cultural elites, over-emphasizing government control and censorship without taking into account the role of audiences as a driving force in cinema trends. The Chinese state, meanwhile, has also been giving audiences too little credit, adhering to a deep-rooted paternalistic management of culture and information.
Yet Chinese audiences are no longer passive recipients of state directives – they are increasingly active participants who demand that media be responsive to their needs. As I’ve stated previously, “Media regulation in China is now a bargaining process in which the twin forces of state control and commercial imperatives must negotiate with each other.” In the case of Avatar, Chinese theater chains triumphed in their battle to get the film on screens because they had the backing of audiences.
More immediately, this means the outlook for Django Unchained is promising, and it will likely be back in theaters before too much longer. As studio boss Samuel Goldwyn once put it: “If the audiences don’t like a picture, they have a good reason. The public is never wrong.”
China’s overbearing government and censors will increasingly have to accept that audiences rule – and if it’s Hollywood they want, it’s Hollywood they will ultimately get.