Chinese authorities have pulled Quentin Tarantino's "Django Unchained" from movie theaters around the country just before the film went on general release there, sparking calls for a transparent classification system.
An employee surnamed Lin who answered the phone at the ticket office in Shanghai's New Century movie complex confirmed that the film, which depicts the violent struggle for revenge and love by a freed slave in 18th century America, had been pulled.
"Owing to technical problems, all screenings of 'Django Unchained' have been halted," Lin said. "We will issue refunds to anyone who has already bought tickets."
But she said she was unaware of the precise nature of the "technical problems" and didn't know whether screenings would resume at any time.
The move sparked irritation among Chinese movie-lovers online, who speculated that nude scenes showing the two main characters were likely the cause of the sudden directive.
Executives at Sony Pictures Entertainment were working to get "Django" back into theaters in China after some movie-goers had the film stopped on them while they were watching it, the Los Angeles Times newspaper reported on Thursday.
"We regret that ‘Django Unchained’ has been removed from theaters and are working with the Chinese authorities to determine whether the film can be rescheduled," the newspaper quoted Sony Pictures Entertainment spokesman Steve Elzer as saying.
'They ban everything'
U.S.-based literary critic Dong Dingshan said he couldn't imagine what problem the authorities could have with the film, however.
"I remember there was a scene where a black slave was savagely beaten and hanged, and some scenes of nudity, but these were depictions of U.S. history as it was at the time," Dong said.
"I don't understand why China would want to ban this film," he said. "It's really ridiculous; they ban everything in China, regardless of whether it is sexually explicit or not."
Dong said nudity and violence was dealt with in the U.S. via the classification system, denoting the age range of the appropriate audience; a system that China lacks.
Hangzhou-based freelance journalist Zan Aizong agreed.
"There are no degrees of film classification in China," Zan said.
"Officials from the culture ministry and the state administration of radio, film and television (SARFT) were asked by journalists when China was going to get one, because the film censorship system isn't at all transparent," he said.
He said films often aren't banned only because of sexual or violent content.
"A film [can get banned] even if it has no violent scenes, but because it touches on some politically sensitive topic," Zan said. "There is a lot of randomness and arbitrariness in the censorship system."
"This is because it is decided on the basis of whether certain leaders like something or not, behind the scenes."
Zan cited the example of the Chinese movie "Summer Palace," which showed a very brief shot of the 1989 student-led democracy movement on Tiananamen Square.
"It was a very short shot, but the film was banned," he said. "This sort of thing is dealt with more strictly than nudity."
While Tarantino shot some scenes from his "Kill Bill" films in China, "Django," which has already taken around U.S.$246 at the box office worldwide, was to have been the first of his films to open there.
Sony Columbia’s head of China operations Zhang Miao told the cutting-edge Southern Metropolis Daily on Tuesday that Tarantino had already agreed to certain modifications to allow for different global markets.
"The violence in the film is a way to serve the main theme, and to tone it down a bit won't hurt the film's essence," Zhang said in comments translated by the LA Times.
"For example, the blood can be darkened a little, and the spouts of blood can be shortened."
"Django Unchained" picked up two Academy Awards for its violent, dramatic revenge tale set amid the era of slavery in late 1800s America.
Reported by Gao Shan for RFA's Mandarin Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.