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China's final cut

U.S. filmmakers seeking entree into the country may be giving the government too much control.

December 21, 2006

WITH SCENES OF xenophobic Chinese and riots against foreigners, the new film "The Painted Veil" provides a view of early 20th century China that is unusually realistic -- particularly for a film made in China and altered by government censors. But as with so many things involving the Asian giant, the filmmakers' experience shows that Hollywood is still taking one or two steps back in China for every step forward.

The main problem for the studios is that, in any given year, Beijing allows only 20 foreign films to be shown in Chinese theaters. The government usurps the distribution duties on those films, deciding when and where to release a film and how to promote it. After the government skims off its take, the producers are left with less than one-fifth of the ticket sales. If the film does well, as was the case with "The Da Vinci Code," it may suddenly be yanked from Chinese theaters for no apparent reason. And when the government wants to showcase a local production it favors, it winnows the competition by barring all foreign films.

To avoid the quota, the blackouts and the tiny share of the box-office receipts, U.S. filmmakers can team up with a Chinese production company. That's what the makers of "The Painted Veil" did. They lined up a Chinese investor -- a joint venture that counts Warner Bros. among its owners. Doing so gave them the same benefits enjoyed by Chinese filmmakers, including guaranteed access to the fast-growing Chinese theatrical market. But it also meant that their script would have to be approved by the Chinese film bureau, as would the final version of the movie. In other words, because the movie producers wanted access to Chinese movie screens, they allowed communist censors to control content destined to be seen by audiences around the world. That's a remarkable capitulation, not only in terms of how filmmakers behave within China, but everywhere.

In some ways, the script-approval process may actually have improved the film. Eager to avoid simplistic, negative portrayals, the film bureau pressed the filmmakers to flesh out Chinese characters and historical events, such as anti-British riots in Shanghai. After the filming was done, the bureau demanded more cuts in exchange for the permit needed to release the movie in China. The filmmakers could have refused, but they would have been forced to buy out their Chinese partners and abandon theaters there. Ultimately, the censors settled for less than one minute's worth of cuts from a two-hour-plus movie -- a thinner slice than many filmmakers make from U.S. releases to obtain a PG-13 rating instead of an R.

Still, the nature of the cuts rankled the filmmakers, and rightly so. Ostensibly, Chinese censors have to ensure that any film released in the country is suitable for viewers of all ages. But the trims sought in "The Painted Veil" were not aimed at making the film amenable to children. Instead, they were designed to make the depiction of the Chinese people conform with the government's worldview.

Studio executives who've dealt with China for many years say the environment there is better than it used to be, and the setbacks aren't as severe as they were in previous decades. That's due in part to pressure from Chinese filmmakers, who are tiring of historical epics and fantasies. Nevertheless, it's difficult to accept that releasing films in China means giving the ruling party more control than any other large country demands and that no government should exert.

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