The most popular South Korean film ever has been banned from Chinese cinemas due to subtle gay themes according to the film’s distributors.

“The film ‘King and the Clown’ could not pass the deliberation process in China because of the homosexual code and sexually explicit language in the film,” a spokesman from South Korean distributor CJ told Reuters.

The film has grossed more than $85 million and sold 12 million tickets. The distributors have been granted permission to sell a DVD version of the film in China. The Chinese censors were unavailable to comment.

King and the Clown, which tells the story of an effeminate male clown caught between the affections of a despotic king and a fellow performer has been viewed by South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun has seen it. By contrast, President Bush said recently that he’d yet to see the cowboy romance favoured to win the best-picture Oscar.

The surprise hit is about a troupe of entertainers condemned to die for an act mocking 16th-century King Yonsan, but who beg to be pardoned if they can make the king laugh with their racy skit lampooning him and his favourite concubine. The clowns succeed and become court jesters.

Kong-gil, the gentle-faced male clown who portrays the woman in the skit, draws the king’s attention. But according to reports, the gay story line is muted. The king and Kong-gil share one quick on-screen kiss.

Homosexuality has only recently gained some acceptance in South Korean society. It was still on a list of “socially unacceptable sexual acts” until April, 2004.

The success of King and the Clown comes as a huge surprise to the film’s director, Lee Jun-ik. He said he feels it comes from the audience’s enjoyment at seeing a window into palace life and the class differences between the aristocracy and lowly clowns, not because of the gay theme.

Actor Lee Jun-gi, who plays the clown Kong-gil, said he has enjoyed growing popularity because of the film. “I feel proud of creating a unique character,” he told the Associated Press. Hahn Chae-yun, director of the Korean Sexual Minority Culture and Rights Centre, noted the touching story and film’s direction were the real reason for its success – but he said he hopes this film will open minds.

“I hope people’s views toward homosexual love could be more broad-minded, and treated the same as love between others, through this success of the film,” Mr Hahn said.