China chains Tarantino’s ‘Django’


Once again China’s censors have proven to be as diligently rigorous as always in removing what they deem offensive scenes from imported Hollywood productions before giving their blessings for theatrical release in the country. One of the most recent victims of the State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio Film and Television (often shortened to “Censorship Committee”) was Quentin Tarantino’s violent slave-revenge drama, Django Unchained. The movie, which won two Oscars this past spring, was already unexpectedly pulled by its distributor, China Film Group Corp., on its supposed opening day, April 11. This had led to speculation that despite several weeks of intense promotion, the spectacle had run afoul of the vigilant censors, who generally remove overly violent, sexually graphic and politically sensitive content not only from foreign but also domestic productions.

However, Django Unchained suddenly returned to cinemas on May 12, with the new version reportedly being one minute shorter than the previous one. It’s been surmised that a nude scene had been cut. Just prior to Django Unchained, Hollywood blockbuster Iron Man 3 also found itself in the steely grip of the censorship body, but got off comparatively lightly. Censors demanded that the name of the movie’s half-Chinese villain called “Mandarin” (played by Ben Kingsley) be rendered as “Man Daren” in the Chinese subtitles to divert from possible feudal connotations. “Mandarins” were high-ranking officials with almost unlimited powers during the Q’ing Dynasty and subsequent Nationalist-led republic prior to the country’s communist takeover in 1949. Some industry sources speculated Iron Man 3 was spared more drastic measures because the producers—local DMG Entertainment and Walt Disney-owned Marvel Studios—had wisely incorporated additional footage shot in China and featuring top actress Fan Bingbing to derive a version that is exclusively screened domestically.

Earlier victims of Chinese censorship include the latest James Bond flick, Skyfall, which suffered scene cuts referring to the sex trade in China’s special administrative zone of Macau, as well as Cloud Atlas, which was shortened by 38 minutes to remove sensitive parts including homosexual and heterosexual love scenes.

Despite the often unpredictable whims of China’s censorship authorities, the country remains an enormously lucrative market for Hollywood. According to figures from the Motion Picture Association of America, U.S. productions generated a staggering $2.7 billion in China last year, effectively making the country the second-largest market behind the U.S.—and although China only permits a maximum of 34 Hollywood films to be screened each year.

Boos and Cheers at Cannes

This year’s Cannes International Film Festival turned out to be both triumph and embarrassment for Asian movies. Controversial Japanese director Takashi Miike’s blood-soaked crime thriller Wara No Tate (Shield of Straw), entered in the competition for the festival’s top award, the Palme d’Or, reportedly got off to a good start, eliciting enthusiastic audience applause for a meticulously executed ambush scene. But sentiments made a surprising turnaround just a little while later when an off-the-rails bullet train scene was loudly booed, primarily for the fact that policemen on the train apparently found enough time to deliver lengthy speeches about their personal motivations while only pausing to brutally mow down bands of bloodthirsty bounty hunters.

Shield of Straw didn’t fare well with critics either. British critic Geoff Andrew derided the movie in a Twitter message as “risibly overacted, overemphatic nonsense that constantly states the obvious cliché,” while French industry magazine CineVue only minutes after the premiere called it a “stone-cold dud” on its website, having no qualms about giving it only one star out of a possible five. Meanwhile, online reviewer Electric Sheep joined in the chorus by saying the movie “went down like a lead balloon.”

Shield of Straw tells the story of a nationwide hunt for the child rapist-cum murderer of a billionaire’s seven-year-old granddaughter, which sees packs of ridiculously frenzied would-be bounty hunters trying to track him down. The criminal eventually turns himself in to the police and has to be protected at all cost from the pursuing mob. Needless to say, the Palme d’Or was awarded to French-produced Blue Is the Warmest Color for its touching depiction of a passionate lesbian love relationship against the backdrop of France’s recent achievement to legalize gay marriage.

Meanwhile, cheers and praise were heaped on China’s Tian Zhu Ding (A Touch of Sin), a tale of greed, exploitation and corruption, issues that plague modern-day China. Written and directed by Jia Zhangke, the movie was lauded by festival jury head Steven Spielberg as “nothing less than visionary,” although it is as yet uncertain whether it ever will be screened in its homeland due to its sensitive content.

Also very well-received was the Singapore production Ilo Ilo by first-time filmmaker Anthony Chen, who won the Camera d’Or award for his debut feature. Ilo Ilo follows the lives of a workaholic Singaporean middle-class family and their Filipina maid during the Asian financial crisis of 1997.

Not known for a prolific movie industry, Cambodia’s documentary entry L’Image Manquante (The Missing Picture) by director Rithy Panh earned the top award in the Un Certain Regard (Special Mention) category. The movie makes extensive use of rare archival footage of the genocidal Khmer Rouge regime (1975-1979), during which more than one-third of Cambodia’s population perished. The footage is juxtaposed with a menagerie of hand-carved figurines representing Rithy Panh’s relatives, who were wiped out during what has been described as “one of the most murderous and inhumane governments in history”.

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