The censored version of Django Unchained arrives in China later this month. Ananth Krishnan looks at how Hollywood is willing to bow to the Chinese box office, even as local filmmakers wage an uphill battle to push the limits of expression.

The appropriately named “Megabox”, a modern and sprawling multiplex in the up-market shopping and nightlife district of Sanlitun, is where I usually get my fix of foreign films in Beijing. Only 20 foreign films are shown in China every year. The Chinese government limits the number of overseas films for two reasons: to promote the State-controlled domestic industry, and to limit what the Communist Party often likes to describe as the dangerous influence of “hostile foreign forces”.

How the government chooses those 20 films is a mystery. When the censorship authority — the General Administration of Press, Publications, Radio, Film and Television (GAPPRFT), to give it its full name — announced that the foreign film selected for screening for the month of April was Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained, Chinese filmgoers, long-used to sterile and safe selections, were more than pleasantly surprised.

Django Unchained was to be the first Tarantino film to ever be released in China. Kill Bill, though filmed in China, was deemed far too violent. The Kill Bill films and Pulp Fiction have, nevertheless, won Tarantino a wide following among young Chinese; the films are ubiquitous in Chinese underground DVD markets and film-sharing websites. So it was amid much excitement that Django Unchained opened at the Megabox on the morning of April 11.

The film’s successful run at the Academy Awards, which were for the first time in many years broadcast live by State broadcaster China Central Television (CCTV), had added to the buzz surrounding its release. Django was only the second Best Picture-nominated film to be released in China, after Life of Pi. The actor Richard Gere’s comments at the Academy Awards in 1993 hitting out at the Chinese government over the Tibet issue — he was subsequently banned as a presenter — had made the government uneasy about live telecasts. Coincidentally, Gere, probably unbeknownst to CCTV, was allowed to return to the Academy stage this year.

Tarantino’s much-awaited China debut lasted for a grand total of two minutes. The screening at the Megabox was stopped abruptly, with members of the audience told that a “technical problem” was to blame. Within hours, however, every multiplex in Beijing was told to pull the film from their screens. Chinese bloggers reported that the censors had decided, at the last minute, that a scene showing a naked Django being tortured was far too graphic.

The controversy over the film reignited a debate about the increasingly complicated relationship between Hollywood and China’s booming, and still State-controlled, film industry. China’s lucrative domestic box office — valued at $ 3 billion — grew 30 per cent last year. The number of cinema screens in China has increased from around 4,500 five years ago to more than 11,000. As of last year, an estimated 60 per cent of the box office revenues came from the 20 foreign imports — a statistic that has become a source of much consternation to the domestic industry, but one that has brought a long line of American film companies to China’s doorstep.

With only 20 slots available every year, American film companies have been in a mad scramble to grab a slice of the China market. To work around the 20 film-limit, companies have started seeking “co-production” agreements with Chinese film companies. These agreements allow their products to escape the “foreign import” tag. The only catch: As a production partner of a Chinese film company, American film companies are now giving the Chinese government an unprecedented say in how they make their films, right down to plot details and the casting of characters.

Only five days after Django Unchained was pulled from China’s theatres, more than 200 of the world’s biggest film companies gathered in Beijing for the third edition of the government-backed Beijing International Film Festival (BIFF). Among those in attendance at BIFF were Kathleen Kennedy, the head of Lucasfilm, who was in Beijing to sign a technology cooperation deal, and Keanu Reeves, whose film Man of Tai Chi is only the latest Hollywood-China co-production.

That Western film companies and directors are increasingly willing to play by the rules of China’s censors was underscored by the unexpected presence of Jean-Jacques Annaud at BIFF. The French director was once black-listed by China for the 1997 film Seven Years in Tibet. Fifteen years later, Annaud was back in Beijing to sign a co-production deal. Also in Beijing was Robert Downey Jr. to promote Iron Man 3. While Marvel Studios, the producers, initially considered a co-production with the Beijing company DMG, they eventually settled on a more cautious compromise by casting big-name Chinese stars in prominent roles. Marvel will be releasing a separate version of the film just for the China market, including extra scenes with Chinese actress Fan Bingbing.

Marvel also went out of the way to please Chinese regulators by recasting the villain, initially supposed to be the character “The Mandarin”, as “an ethnically ambiguous bad guy”, according to the Hollywood Reporter. The producers of the remake of Red Dawn did the same last year, when they reworked the plot to make North Koreans — not Chinese, as in the 1984 original — the enemies. Paramount Pictures announced at the BIFF last week that the fourth instalment of the Transformers series will also be co-produced with a Chinese company, which is planning a nationwide reality television show to select four Chinese actors for the movie.

The appeal of box office revenues appears likely to mute any concerns film companies may have about censorship. Last year, the release of the James Bond film Skyfall stirred controversy as censors removed references to prostitution and torture in China, and also cut a scene where a Chinese security guard in Shanghai was shot. Skyfall went on to break box office records in China. At BIFF last year, the director James Cameron, who revealed he is considering co-producing his next Avatar instalment with a Chinese company, made a case for co-productions, describing them as an arrangement benefiting both parties. While Hollywood could tap a new market, Chinese film producers would benefit from working with U.S. film companies and would improve their film-making and technological skills. While Cameron did acknowledge that censorship would be a factor, he added that he would have to “weigh the pros and cons very carefully”, including the economic incentives involved.

Indian film companies have not, as yet, paid much attention to the China market despite the strong interest in Bollywood that dates back to the 1970s, when films from India were the only foreign films allowed. Indian film companies often cite the 20-film quota as a starting obstacle, although the Indian government has been pushing China to allow imports from Bollywood. 3 Idiots, which became a cult hit in China, was released nationwide in December 2011 by the State-run China Film Group. The film did reasonably well, although the release came two years too late — the film had already become a huge Internet sensation after its 2009 release in India.

India-China co-productions may however, soon be on the cards. The China Film Group has lent its backing to a $10 million project led by a Beijing film company, Light House productions, which is looking for an Indian partner to produce a “Bollywood-style film” for the China market. The film, tentatively titled Goldstruck, will have an Indian and Chinese cast and be filmed in both countries. Cindy Shyu, the CEO of Light House, describes the project as an experiment to gauge current Chinese interest in Bollywood, which, if successful, could pave the way for similar initiatives in the future.

How do Chinese filmmakers view the increasing cosiness between Hollywood and their government? As Chinese directors increasingly look to push the limits of expression set by the government, does Hollywood’s kowtowing undermine their efforts? I put the question to Zheng Qiong, an independent Beijing documentary film-maker who has been critical of censorship restrictions. Zheng runs Beijing’s only independent documentary film festival, an annual affair called iDocs.

Zheng didn’t answer my question directly. She told me about the two documentaries she is working on. The first follows the fortunes of three teenagers in three different provinces who drop out of school. The second project is about a psychiatric hospital that treats people who were traumatised by the Cultural Revolution and unable to resume their lives after being “sent down to the countryside” by Mao’s movement. Both films, she told me, will find it difficult to find a backer in China and will, in all likelihood, not be released here. “The government only supports projects it is comfortable with,” Zheng said. Every project in China was dictated by the twin pressures of the market and the State.

Acclaimed Chinese director Feng Xiaogang was more scathing in his criticism in a speech in Beijing on April 12, when he was honoured as “director of the year” by the official Film Directors’ Guild. As a mainstream director, Feng has worked with State-run film companies through much of his career, making commercially successful films such as the recent Back to 1942, which tells the story of a devastating famine during the Sino-Japanese war. “In the past 20 years, every China director faced a great torment,” Feng said. “And that torment,” he added, “is censorship”. His speech won praise from his colleagues, seen as giving voice to their deep-seated frustrations, and later went viral on social media websites, although regulators bleeped out the word “censorship”. “To get approval, I have to cut my films in a way that makes them worse,” Feng continued. “How do we all persist? There is only one reason: this bunch of fools loves filmmaking too much”. Feng wondered, “Are Hollywood directors tormented the same way?”