China censors unlock ‘Code’

Pic will become first day-and-date release of '06

Sony’s “The Da Vinci Code” has moved swiftly past China’s censors and will become the first day-and-date release of 2006 when it bows May 19.

Some had worried that “Da Vinci” might have a tough time as religion and spiritual matters are no-go areas for movies in China.

And after sustaining a blow when “Memoirs of a Geisha” fell afoul of the censor amid anti-Japanese sentiment earlier this year, Sony is on a roll in China: Its horror remake “When a Stranger Calls” is the first Hollywood horror movie approved by the Film Bureau. No date has been given for the release of “Stranger” yet, but it will be later in the summer.

Sony’s Chinese surprises show that the film market is growing in sophistication.

“China is more open now,” said Li Chow, Columbia TriStar’s general manager in China. “The censors saw ‘Da Vinci’ and saw that it was not a story about religion, and approval came very fast from the Film Bureau.”

Company is gearing up for a major promotion of the Ron Howard-helmed pic, which stars Tom Hanks and Audrey Tautou. It plans to distribute 350 prints and to ensure “Da Vinci” screens in all China’s major cities.

Pic has been selected to open Cannes on May 17, two days before its global bow.

Wu Hehu, deputy director of Shanghai United Cinema Lines, China’s largest cinema chain, said the film would not be altered much from the original. Looking ahead, animated feature “Open Season” is slated to open in China in September.

It remains to be seen whether China’s new liberalism will extend to James Bond pic “Casino Royale,” which opens in November. Bond’s penchant for espionage means he is usually persona non grata here.

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