Remember when Quentin Tarantino blew a gasket late last year, in that snippet of viral video?
“Django Unchained” had been released in the shadow of the still-recent Newtown slaughter, and he was promoting his antebellum revenge odyssey — his gleefully violent antebellum revenge odyssey — when a British interviewer had the temerity to ask, “Why are you so sure that there’s no link between enjoying movie violence and enjoying real violence?”
And right he was.
Mr. Tarantino answers to a different master — the state-controlled Chinese film industry, which controls foreign access to the lucrative Chinese movie market, already the second largest in the world, and growing.
And the market slave that he is, Mr. Tarantino has agreed to dilute “Django Unchained” to assure his Oscar-winning film will open as scheduled April 11 in China, where foreign films are meticulously vetted by state censors in a process typically lasting, The New York Times reports, 15 to 30 business days.
Mr. Tarantino has, of course, made a career of aestheticizing bloodshed, famously delighting in painterly compositions framing spurts and sprays, gouts and geysers — not to mention mists, sprinkles, plumes, blooms, washes and wipes — of brilliantly hued blood.
On his best behavior, however, for his Chinese distributors, the Hollywood bad boy has consented to attenuate his opulent jets of the red essence for the sake of “Django’s” release in the People’s Republic.
“What we call bloodshed and violence is just a means of serving the purpose of the film, and these slight adjustments will not affect the basic quality of the film — such as tuning the blood to a darker color, or lowering the height of the splatter of blood,” Zhang Miao, director of Sony Pictures’ Chinese branch, tactfully explained to Southern Metropolis Daily, a feisty Chinese daily. “Quentin knew how to adjust that, and it’s necessary that he is the one to do it. You can give him suggestions, but it must be him who does [the tuning].”
The Chinese face-saving tradition. It’s a beautiful thing.
Mr. Tarantino has, Mr. Zhang euphemized, “agreed on making slight adjustments to the film for different markets — and this adjustment for him is progress rather than a compromise.”
Progress it surely is for the uncompromising artist, who in December was still storming at his hapless British interlocutor: “You can’t make me dance to your tune. I’m not a monkey.”
It’s clear enough that it’s the allure of Chinese box office lucre that has induced Mr. Tarantino to shed his pride in artistic independence and perform his awkward little steps for his state socialist accompanists. But what’s in it for them, his Chinese organ grinders?
For China, the prospect of sharing in “Django’s” box office receipts — even at the communist kleptocracy’s current extortionate rate of 75 percent of foreign film grosses — is ancillary to the larger propaganda opportunity. With the release of Mr. Tarantino’s reimagining of the brutal slaveholding culture of the Old South, China hopes to taunt its waning rival across the Pacific and tarnish in the minds of the PRC’s own restless captives the dangerous ideals of liberty a hypocritical America claims to embody.
Of course, China’s politically quiescent masses have a mind of their own; the message they take from “Django Unchained” might not turn out to be the one their leaders have prescribed for them.
We’ve had our sport with Mr. Tarantino — who can resist? — but in his tale of implacable slave rebellion there is undeniably something broadly threatening to the interests of entrenched elites corrupted by unchecked power.
Nested within the local and historical particulars embedding “Django” in America’s pre-Civil War South is a rabble-rousing call to arms, a timeless and universal narrative of oppression, struggle and freedom. Mr. Tarantino tells the tale of a slave who, with the aid of a sympathetic foreigner, escapes bondage and turns the tables on his ruthless masters in a relentless campaign to regain his family, reclaim his liberty and punish the privileged elite of complacent oppressors who’d kept him in captivity.
If I belonged to a privileged Chinese Communist Party elite of notoriously parasitic apparatchiks dictating the terms of existence — down to fundamentals of family size and structure — to a captive population of more than a billion, I’d be in no hurry to approve that movie for wide national release. Would you?