Chollywood? More like "Chinewood" – as in China plus Pinewood – David Cameron told reporters last December. Cameron was in Beijing at the time with Britain's largest ever trade mission, a 100-person microcosm of everything Britain had to offer: financial services, pharmaceuticals, energy, manufacturing, and culture – including the British Film Institute (BFI) and, unsurprisingly, Pinewood Studios. The latter didn't come back emptyhanded. A British-Chinese co-production deal was agreed giving Chinese film-makers access to British tax breaks and skills, and British film-makers a back door into the lucrative but well-shielded Chinese market.
As with China's wider economic boom, the country's film industry is mushrooming, and everyone wants a piece of it. China is opening seven new cinema screens a day. It is the second largest film market in the world, and is expected to overtake the US within the next five years. Under China's state-controlled quota system, though, only 34 foreign films a year are permitted a release, and invariably those are big-budget Hollywood films. Films made under the UK-Chinese agreement will count as co-productions, however, and will therefore bypass the quota system. "This is a significant step forward for the British film industry," said Cameron.
Subsequent steps will be more tentative, though. The marriage has been arranged, but now the couple have to get to know each other. Britain has similar co-production deals with other countries, but as anyone in the movie business will tell you, China is different. There is no certification system deeming films appropriate for certain ages; instead, films are approved by the state – for everyone or not at all. The criteria are not made explicit, but foreign films are routinely rejected or cut on grounds such as religion (Darren Aronofsky's Noah), sex and violence (Django Unchained), and even time travel (The Time Traveller's Wife). And anything casting aspersions on China's rulers, history, military, human rights record – or any other aspect of the country – is out of the question. A Chinese spokesperson summed it up at a US/China film summit last year: "We want to see positive Chinese images."
The US has already been courting China for some time, though it has struggled to make Chollywood work. As one executive recently put it to the Hollywood Reporter: "China is way too big to ignore and way too fucked up to expect anything." As well as the censorship hoops, there is a reduced box-office cut (studios usually get 25% in China, as opposed to 50%), and an unlevel playing field (Avatar, for example, was pulled from Chinese screens to make way for a home-made Confucius biopic). But it is still considered worthwhile. Stars such as Scarlett Johansson and Johnny Depp regularly turn up for the Beijing premieres these days, and Hollywood bends over backwards to incorporate Chinese actors and locations into blockbusters such as Mission Impossible 3 and Transformers 4.
The results can be awkward, though. Few will have noticed Fan Bingbing and Wang Xueqi in last year's Iron Man 3, but Chinese audiences saw a different cut of the movie, with extended scenes featuring the Chinese actors. Having a villain named the Mandarin was a potential deal-breaker, but they got round that by making him from Croydon. Locals were not convinced, however. "Some people mistake Hollywood's strategy as a sign of growing recognition of Chinese culture, but it is actually a commercial tactic," wrote China Daily after Iron Man 3, in an editorial entitled Don't Be Tricked By Hollywood.
Britain is hoping for a happier relationship. "I do think it's going to be complicated in the beginning," says Amanda Nevill, the BFI's chief executive, who accompanied David Cameron on the trade mission last year. "We're two very different countries. It's a great leap of faith. But the only reason the co-production has been pursued with such vigour and enthusiasm is because both sides know there are a lot of wins."
That cultural gulf is already being bridged. Last month another British delegation – this time of film professionals – travelled to Beijing to meet and engage with their Chinese counterparts. And in June, a four-month retrospective of Chinese cinema begins at the BFI Southbank, the largest ever held in Britain. It offers a rare chance to see films from Shanghai's 1930s golden age: classics such as 1948's Spring In a Small Town, which has been compared with the works of Ozu and Antonioni, or the 1934 silent movie The Goddess, starring screen heroine Ruan Lingyu – both of which have recently been restored and received like long-lost relatives by Chinese audiences. China is virtually a missing chapter in cinema history. The ravages of the Cultural Revolution and decades of media control have done much to erase it, not just from outsiders but from its own population.
If the outside world struggles with China's idiosyncrasies, it has been even harder for its own film-makers, who must obtain state permission to shoot a movie. What quality cinema China has produced in recent decades has often been made outside, or in opposition to, the official system. The award-winning films that heralded its 1990s renaissance, such as Zhang Yimou's Raise the Red Lantern and Chen Kaige's Farewell My Concubine, were banned in China. Both directors subsequently returned to the state-approved fold (Zhang directed the opening ceremony for the 2008 Beijing Olympics), where they have produced little of comparable calibre.
Many young film-makers still prefer to operate outside official channels. They know the stories they are interested in telling would never be officially sanctioned. Documentary maker Wang Bing, for example, has earned festival acclaim with unvarnished studies of China's modernisation such as Three Sisters. Rising star Zheng Kuo's Burned Wings is a reckless study of young north-eastern hoodlums mixing violence, sex and comedy. Liu Jiayin's Oxhide films, meanwhile, are set entirely in the cramped Beijing apartment she shares with her parents. The movies that do get official approval and release tend to be inoffensive comedies and historical action movies catering to a youth audience. China is building a huge and profitable movie industry of its own, but its products are by no means up to international standards.
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The best-known director of the current generation is Jia Zhangke, whose new film A Touch of Sin is released today. It lays out tales of death, violence and simmering anger at the inequality China's economic boom has created. A disgruntled worker takes a shotgun to the wealthy boss who sold off the state-run coal mine. Prostitutes parade in skimpy People's Army uniforms before wealthy clients. A migrant worker shoots a wealthy woman on the street for her cash. So much for "positive Chinese images". Jia's previous films have been sedate, semi-documentary observations of his country's transition, but A Touch of Sin plays more like a Tarantino movie, or rather, the type of martial-arts movie Tarantino rips off.
"I've always focused on contemporary Chinese issues and showing ordinary people's lives in dramatic transformation. But in recent years I've been drawn to more extreme cases," says Jia. "There is definitely a change in Chinese society. In my past films, when people were faced with problems, they chose to endure, to bear the consequences. However, in the past few years, pressure on people has intensified, and other ways to express yourself have been blocked. That leads to these outbursts of violence."
The way Jia gleaned the stories in A Touch of Sin is also a reflection of this changing China. They were all based on news stories reported on Weibo – the Chinese version of Twitter. "These kind of incidents never used to make the news. They were not allowed to be reported on TV, but now because of social media, we know what's going on," he says.
A Touch of Sin won Jia best screenplay at last year's Cannes film festival, but, perhaps unsurprisingly, it has not been released in China. "They are concerned what consequences releasing such a film might bring," says Jia. At least he got permission to make this one. His first movie, 1997's Xiao Wu, about a smalltown pickpocket, was shot clandestinely in his hometown of Fenyang. It earned him international recognition and a domestic ban from making any more movies. The former seems to have outweighed the latter. Similarly, A Touch of Sin has already been widely seen in China through pirated copies. One website hosting it got 30,000 comments.
"Censorship has actually loosened up a lot, though," says Jia. "It's very hard to imagine A Touch of Sin would have been allowed to go ahead 15 years ago." Film-makers no longer have to submit entire scripts for approval; just a two-page synopsis. "I've found the best way to work is to have everybody on board. To communicate. So they get a sense that we're doing this project together. That does not mean I have to compromise or give up my own ground. I need to repeatedly express my will and intention and desire to make film freely in China."
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Which side of Chinese cinema is Britain getting into bed with? The commercial end or the unofficial indie end? And what exactly might a "Chinewood" co-production look like? A British version of A Touch of Sin? An epic retelling of the opium wars, perhaps? An inoffensive hybrid, something like Crouching Tiger, Harry Potter? Perhaps we shouldn't expect this new relationship to breed a whole new type of cinema just yet, says Robin Gutch, managing director of Warp Films, who was one of the British team who recently flew out to Beijing. He was encouraged by what he saw. "It was very inspiring. There seems to be a genuine open-mindedness to working together on both sides." Warp, producer of films such as This Is England and Four Lions, is looking at adapting a Chinese science-fiction story set in the near future, Gutch reveals. "Some of it is very Chinese, but clearly it's been influenced by classic western sci-fi writers, and there are western characters in it, so it feels like a genuine fusion of cultures."