In a city of vastly divergent living standards, going to the drive-in presupposes a personal wealth that most have yet to attain.

It is unlikely, though, that any patrons of the drive-in will be reminded of this on screen, as the industry is still tightly regulated by a government keen to shield moviegoers from the harsher realities of modern China.

Although coming a long way since the stylised propaganda epics of the Cultural Revolution, the editing scissors of the government film bureau are still being wielded with zealous frequency, to the detriment of the industry’s development.

"The government does not care about making films other than large budgets epics," explains local director Zhao Liang. "They have no desire to show the sort of films I make."

Banned

A producer of documentary-style films that focus on the lives of laid-off workers, drug addicts and social outcasts, Zhao has never been allowed to hold a public screening in China, instead relying on local film clubs and foreign film festivals.

Like other forms of contemporary culture such as music and art, the government has been unwilling to encourage artists to reach their full creative and financial potential.

Worried by the consequences of actors portraying controversial political, religious or social issues on screen, state approval is needed before any film can be shown.

According to internationally acclaimed director Wang Xiaoshuai, the process of accreditation is highly political and overly bureaucratic.

"The choice of whether a film is passed has nothing to do with its quality, but instead is based on its suitability given current political concerns, with little in the way of clear guidelines," he says.

International pressure

In one of Wang's recent films, Beijing Bicycle, only after various overseas screenings and glowing reviews did the government consider allowing it to be shown in China, three years after it was made.

A still from Beijing Bicycle by
Wang Xiaoshuai

"Ostensibly though, you need government approval before you start or else you will not get the financial backing. No one will back you if the film has a good chance of not being shown," Wang says.

One result of this is that the industry is currently experiencing a dichotomy of opinion among its members about exactly what role a film should fulfil. At its starkest, believes Zhao Liang, "directors either follow their heart or their wallet" when assessing how best to shoot their storyboards.

Admitting that as a child he wanted to make "Hollywood-style" movies designed for entertainment rather than enlightenment, he had a change of heart while at film school. "I want to make films that give a voice to those without one, art-house films that have meaning, not pure entertainment for the masses."

"At the moment, China is a very unsure country," said Wang Xiaoshuai. "People are only focusing on money, money, money. What is real love and honesty anymore? Films should be used to question how best to build a new society."

Intellectual snobbery

Others though decry this attitude as being indicative of the intellectual European school of film that many directors in China try to emulate.

"Chinese directors are spending too much time talking about philosophy and meaning, and not enough worrying about the basic truth, how to make money," said Lin Xiaodong, a producer who specialises in selling Chinese films abroad.

Some producers say the industry
fails to entice moviegoers

"We need to refill the cinemas, understand the audience and give them entertainment – most directors in China do not have these skills," Lin added.

Warner Brothers China marketing manager, Shi Xiaoye, echoes this attitude. "Directors just want to make movies for themselves, not for the public or the market, and this is damaging because, when their first film loses money as a result, it will be difficult for them to find financial backers again."

At a time when cinemas are just beginning to refill after a prolonged drought brought on, according to Shi Xiaoye, by a combination of poor quality films and one-dollar pirate DVDs, the need to get directors to focus on the market could not be more crucial for big players such as Warner.

Digital cinemas

A recent government announcement outlined proposals for a further 2500 new digital cinemas, where films are beamed via satellite, to be constructed by 2009.

Warner Brothers is currently finalising plans for 40 to 50 cinema villages, each averaging eight screens and top of the range facilities.

However, future growth predictions are being offset by the limited choice of films. Last year, 140 local and 20 foreign films were available for screening - not enough, says Shi Xiaoye, to satisfy the demands of the multiplexs.

"The emphasis now is on companies like ours investing in the actual film-making process, creating our own films which we can show at our cinemas," he explains.

Currently permitted to provide 49% of a film's capital, Warner plans to make two to three Chinese films a year.

More importantly, Warner and other foreign film giants claim to use their muscle to lobby for changes to the censorship procedure. What success they have had, Shi Xiaoye would not disclose.

Changes promised

According to Professor Zhou Xing, a government adviser on the film industry, changes are on the way.

"This year will see a greater openness of the part of the authorities towards film content. Everyone wants to see this as there are too many entertainment films that lack real depth and meaning."

"The whole system needs to be destroyed; there should be no censorship of films"

Director Wang Xiaoshuai

Certainly, in terms of making films, the government has already lost out to technological upgrades that now allow anyone with a handheld camera to become an amateur filmmaker.

After hollow proclamations in the past, some remained unconvinced that this year will be any different.

"I will wait to see if my next film is approved before making any judgment on whether the system is changing,” says Wang Xiaoshuai. “The whole system needs to be destroyed; there should be no censorship of films."

Continual industry exposure to foreign production techniques and understanding of market demand may help accelerate changes that allow for greater artistic freedom, as the film bureau is as much a business - taking a slice of film revenues - as it is an overseer.

Such changes might even help draw into the mainstream the undervalued pool of directors who follow their heart, many of whom have won industry accolades abroad, yet languish in obscurity in China.

But for the time being the film bureau will be keeping its scissors at the ready.