China is not the easiest country to shoot in - the language barrier and script approval are just two obstacles that foreign producers face - but many filmmakers are finding the upside is worth it.

A vast country with a wide range of studios and natural locations, China has proved its versatility, standing in for the Philippines in John Dahl's The Great Raid and for Afghanistan in Marc Forster's The Kite Runner - a DreamWorks production that wrapped in December after a two-month shoot in Xinjiang and Beijing.

But as fascination with the country grows, more film-makers are coming here to make China-set stories. Roger Spottiswoode is currently shooting China-Australia-Germany co-production The Children Of Huang Shi, which tells the true story of a British journalist who saved a group of orphans during the Japanese invasion of China, by leading them on a 1,000-mile trek to Western China. Jonathan Rhys Meyers heads the cast, which also includes Radha Mitchell and Chinese actors Chow Yun-fat and Michelle Yeoh.

The production involved taking the children and a 300-strong crew into the mountains of the remote Gansu province in the middle of winter. But Wieland Schulz-Keil, one of the film's five producers, says he had a positive experience which was partly achieved by staffing the film along the same lines as a Chinese production. With only a handful of Westerners, the production avoided the misunderstandings that arise when Chinese crews are forced to adopt Western working practices.

A bigger challenge was finding period buildings. It is surprisingly difficult to find older buildings in China and the few that still exist have often been fixed up in a way that makes them less useable, says Schulz-Keil. 'But the natural locations are wonderful. We shot in the Gobi desert, three hours from Dunhuang, and the scenery was spectacular.'

Access point
Stunning locations and low costs were the initial draws when international productions started to arrive in China, following the trail blazed by Kill Bill in 2002. But in recent years the government has started to actively encourage filming in the country as a method of market access.

Every film that shoots in China has to be set up as a co-production - either 'assisted' or 'full' - with a local company, and both methods are subject to approval of both the script and finished film. Until recently, most people chose the more easily arranged assisted route - which is basically a services deal - despite the finished film standing less chance of being distributed in China.

However, since the government has relaxed the regulations, more producers are opting for full co-productions as finished films can be distributed outside the annual quota of 20 revenue-sharing films. Children Of Huang Shi took this route, as did John Curran's period drama The Painted Veil and Merchant Ivory's The White Countess.

Censor sensibility
Not all subject matter is suitable for China and it is wise to be aware of the issues that concern the censors. Mission: Impossible III filmed in Shanghai in 2005, as an assisted co-production between Paramount and China Film Group, and was released as one of the 20 revenue-sharing films last year. However its release was delayed for two months while censors snipped out scenes that portrayed Shanghai in an unflattering light.

But censorship issues are often outweighed by the growing number of state-owned and private investors within China and the country's rapidly evolving film-making infrastructure.

Beijing-based China Film Group and Shanghai Film Studios both have ambitious plans for new facilities and Hengdian World Studios is adding sound stages to its impressive backlots. Ang Lee's Lust, Caution, which is shooting at Shanghai Film Studios, has created a new street at the studio's Chedun shooting base. There are also plans to upgrade the country's post-production facilities. Currently most productions go overseas for processing and post, but this could change as foreign investment enters the sector.

'China has a strong industry itself and you have access to everything, including knowledge, equipment and experienced crews,' says The Painted Veil line producer Antonia Barnard. 'Crews don't speak English, but it's never a problem if you have a translator you can trust.'

China also has a growing number of production services companies. One of the best known internationally is Dragon Studios, established in 2004 by Peter Loehr - also a producer on Children Of Huang Shi - along with Hengdian Studios, line producer Zhang Wang and Cinerent director He Ping.

Warner China Film HG Corp - the joint venture between Warner Bros, China Film and Hengdian - is mostly focused on Chinese-language production but has also assisted overseas productions such as Dark Matter and co-produced The Painted Veil and Sino-Finnish kung-fu title Jade Warrior.

According to the China Film Co-production Corp, there were 36 full and five assisted co-productions in 2006 and this year looks just as busy. Several big productions are expected in China this year, including Viridian Entertainment's $50m historical drama about the 1937 'Rape of Nanking' war crime, and Relativity Media's $70m as-yet-untitled action adventure to be directed by Robert Minkoff and starring Jet Li and Jackie Chan.