BEIJING -- Just a few minutes after the lights dimmed and the credits rolled, Chinese censors on Thursday yanked Quentin Tarantino's "Django Unchained" from cinemas around the country.
A Shanghai cinema company posted to its official Weibo account Thursday morning that screenings of the film would be delayed indefinitely for "technical reasons." The cinema announced it would reimburse viewers who had already bought tickets.
China’s State Administration for Radio, Film and Television (SARFT) is notorious for its heavy censorship, but filmgoers couldn't remember an occasion when a film was pulled during its premiere.
"We had seen the credits and heard a few sentences of dialogue when the lights came on," said Xue Yutao, a 26 year old photographer from Beijing, who was attending a 10:15 a.m. showing in Beijing’s fashionable Sanlitun neighborhood. "The manager came in and said he had received phone calls from both the SARFT and the cinema management telling him to postpone the showing."
Xue said the cinema promised him a full refund and an additional ticket to the movie of his choice. He added that, even if he can obtain a pirated version of "Django Unchained," he plans to return to the cinema if the movie is re-released.
The film had already been altered for the Chinese market, producer Sony Columbia’s head of China operations Zhang Miao told Chinese media in an interview Tuesday.
"The director had agreed to minor adjustments for different markets," Zhang told the newspaper Southern Metropolis Daily. "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. For example, the blood can be darkened a little, and the spouts of blood can be shortened."
The film debuting Thursday, the Southern Metropolis Daily reported, was supposed to be the same length as the U.S. release.
SARFT did not issue any announcement regarding the suspension of "Django Unchained." But the consensus of Chinese internet users, as well as industry insiders who spoke with the Southern Metropolis Daily, was that a scene from the movie featuring frontal nudity was the immediate cause of the block.
"The eunuchs [at SARFT] can’t stand looking at other people’s privates," commented user SunLiCentury on China's Weibo blogging site Thursday.
"Django Unchained," a revised take on the spaghetti western genre set in the pre-Civil War South, had been the first of Tarantino's films to receive permission for screening on mainland China. Tarantino's "Kill Bill Vol. 1," a 2003 kung fu epic filmed in part in Beijing, did not secure permission for a Chinese screening.
Foreign films hold a large share of China's fast-growing cinema market, which has grown in revenue nearly 20 times over the past decade. According to figures released by SARFT in January, films produced in China accounted for only 48% of the industry's 170 billion RMB ($27 billion) in revenue in 2012.
The control exerted by SARFT on China's entertainment business has left some Chinese viewers feeling cynical about the prospects of China's domestic film industry.
"My understanding is that any interrupted or blocked film is worth seeing, and any film with state-sponsored viewings is empty — I won’t watch any of them," wrote user Li Gang on Weibo. "You rotten old men, you're actually advertising this film!"
For the Record, 10:35 a.m. April 11: An earlier version of this post referred to "Kill Bill Vol. 1" as simply "Kill Bill" and incorrectly stated it was released in 2002.