It is the first Quentin Tarantino film to gain an official release in China. But when Django Unchained hit cinemas yesterday all screenings of the film were cancelled due to an unspecified technical problem – leading to speculation that the film has fallen foul of the country’s censors.
At about 10am local time yesterday China Film Group, the government-supported body who controls the import of foreign films into the country, ordered cinemas across the country to pull the film.
Sony Picture Entertainment’s spokesman in Los Angeles Steve Elzer issued a statement expressing “regret” about the decision and saying that the company is “working with the Chinese authorities to determine whether the film can be rescheduled”.
Tarantino, who is notorious for his ultra-violence, had already toned down the gore in his pre-Civil War slavery drama starring Jamie Foxx and Leonardo DiCaprio in order to secure its release in the lucrative Asian market.
The film hit Chinese cinemas with “slight adjustments” which included “tuning the blood to a darker colour” and “lowering the height of the splatter of blood”, according Zhang Miao, director of Sony Pictures’ Chinese branch, said.
The film’s publicists took to social network Weibo this morning to try and reassure potential audiences that the film would be released soon: “We will try our best to do our job, so as to allow Django Unchained to meet all of you as soon as possible.”
Sony Picture Entertainment has refrained from commenting over speculation that the film, which includes scenes of nudity, did not meet China’s strict censorship rules.
“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,” remarked an unnamed cinema chain manager quoted in The Hollywood Reported.
The industry insider also said the film – which shows a topless Kerry Washington – does transgress stated regulations barring films from showing full frontal nudity. He said: “You could argue it’s acceptable for them to stop the film because of the content - but the problem here is the way they did it.”
But Tian Zaixing, general manager of the Beichen Fortune Centre cinema in the southern city of Kunming, told AP that he didn’t think the film’s content was the reason for screenings to be cancelled.
"The censors have sharper eyes than we do," he said. "Shouldn't they have already spotted it [anything that is not acceptable]?"
An alternative release date of 30 April is being discussed on Chinese social networks but nothing has been confirmed by either Sony Picture Entertainment or the China Film Group.
Django Unchained is the latest in a long line of commercial films to have had to undergo considerable changes prior to release in China.
Scenes of prostitution and references to torture were removed from Sam Mendes’ Bond film Skyfall ; while nearly 40 minutes were chopped from the Hollywood film Cloud Atlas, including gay and straight love scenes.
In November MGM Studios’ special effects teams digitally removed all references to China from new release Red Dawn, with flags and symbols changed to North Korean ones, to salvage its box office potential.
China has a cap on the numbers of foreign films it shows and refuses to screen those that criticise the country or its government.
Django Unchained had been expected to be a box office hit in the country, having made $160 million in America.
China is now the second-biggest film market in the world with sales of $2.7 billion last year according to the Motion Picture Association of America.