Simon Beaufoy, the writer of "Salmon Fishing," said he was under no obligation to reference China, but that the idea came to him spontaneously. "I wanted the biggest and most ambitious idea, and having the engineers from this dam achieved that," he said. "These days, if you want to put something in a film that's bold and ambitious, chances are you're going to end up with China."
Still, he was mindful of causing offense.
"I thought a lot about it and, yes, I probably was a little more careful" than he might otherwise have been, he said. "With the French and the Brits, for example, we know we can throw bricks at each other and it's all very cheerful. But with China we don't really know where the line is yet.... If you go over the line with the portrayal of any country, it can quickly turn into racism."
Mainland censors have long taken out scenes they deem culturally or politically offensive. In 2007, a Chinese pirate character played by Chow Yun-fat was removed from Disney's "Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End" for its release in China. The character is bald, has a long beard and long fingernails. At one point, he recites a poem in Cantonese, not Mandarin, which Beijing promotes as the nation's common language.
The last timeChina'sState Administration of Radio, Film and Television clarified its censorship guidelines was four years ago. Those guidelines were vague and broad, with prohibitions against "disturbing social orders and harming the social stability," "violations against the fundamental principle of the Constitution," and "promoting obsceneness, gambling and violence."
The rules also forbade content such as "murders, violence, horrors, ghosts and demons, supernaturalism … value orientations confusing the real and the fake, the innocent and the evil, and the beautiful and the ugly."
There's little public resistance. "Chinese will come to the theater even if they know in advance that a film's been cut," said Jimmy Wu, chief executive ofChina'sLumiere Pavilions theater chain. "They're coming for the big-screen experience."
A few years ago, comments on Chinese pop culture website douban.com and movie review site MTime.com regularly reflected the game of "gotcha" that Chinese film fans played with censors. People would buy pirated discs or download uncensored versions of Hollywood films, then comment online about what was missing from the versions in Chinese theaters.
Today, online comments about censorship are at a relative trickle, because, one cautious website executive said, "Chinese take censorship for granted. It's a surprise when a film comes in uncut." The censored "MIB3" took in a robust $48 million in its first 10 days in Chinese cinemas, according to Shanghai film industry consultants Artisan Gateway.
In fact, many Chinese moviegoers appreciate when Hollywood inserts elements that appeal to national pride. In "2012," when the White House staffer (played by Oliver Platt) sings the praises of Chinese scientists, audiences rose for standing ovations.
The effect of all this outside China is more fraught. USC's Rosen worries that a generation of moviegoers could emerge with a skewed, sanitized view of China in which human-rights abuses and even the grittiness of everyday life are swept under the rug.
"I don't think the average U.S. filmgoer is hugely aware of all of these small decisions," said Rosen. "But subliminally, it can start to have an effect."
But some in Hollywood say that collaborating with China doesn't present unmanageable hurdles.
"I'm not sure working with China is that different from working with a big studio," said Michael London, an independent film producer who has had discussions with Chinese entities on a co-production. "I'm being partly facetious, of course. But I do think most producers in this climate have long since stopped looking askance at any entity that can help get their movie made. There are always going to be challenges and compromises."
Even for those companies intent on playing to Chinese interests, though, it's not always simple to do so.
U.S.-based Relativity Media thought it had hit upon a savvy business strategy when it decided to accept Chinese co-financing on its film "21 and Over," a U.S. college comedy that had nothing to do with Asia. After shooting was nearly complete stateside, Relativity added in back story about a Chinese American character and, last fall, the production set out for China.
By shooting in China, the film would get some added production money and hopefully assure itself of a Chinese release.
But the company soon ran afoul of human-rights groups when it decided to shoot in the eastern city of Linyi, near where the blind dissident Chen Guangcheng was under house arrest. The activist group Human Rights Watch even urged a boycott of the film upon its release, prompting a fast back-pedal from Relativity Media. (The film is scheduled for release in the United States in November; no Chinese release date has been set.)
"I think the incident showed why China isn't going to be a simple cash cow," said a person associated with the project who was not authorized to speak publicly on its behalf. "People in Hollywood who want to do in business in China are going to learn this the hard way."
Landreth reported from Beijing and Zeitchik from New York.