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Photographing Behind the Scenes of the Chinese Film Industry

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Editor’s note: The following is excerpted from author/photographer Mark Parascandola’s recently-published book Once Upon a Time in Shanghai. It has been republished here with permission.

Five years ago, while I was living in China for a few months, I read that the sprawling China Film Group back lot, just outside Beijing, was open to visitors. The next weekend I found myself on the lot exploring deserted streets of old Shanghai, traditional wooden houses set alongside flower ponds, and incongruous classical monuments with grand columns and staircases. The place was eerily quiet, apart from a few crew members and a wardrobe van outside one of the houses where a costume drama TV series was being filmed. It was my first introduction to a vast world of mainland Chinese cinema culture that, apart from a handful of art films that made it to Western screens, I knew almost nothing about.

Once Upon a Time in Shanghai chinese film industry photo book by Mark Parascandola

Tour group, Palace of Ming and Qing Dynasties, Hengdian World Studios (photo courtesy the author)

Since then, I have been researching, visiting, and photographing movie production sites around China: Hengdian World Studios, purportedly the world’s largest production facility; the 1930s-era streetscape of the Shanghai Film Park; the rustic Western Film City on the edge of the desert in Ningxia Province; the old Beijing Film Studio lot; a cathedral built for Zhang Yimou’s The Flowers of War; and the bizarre theme parks of Changchun Movie Wonderland and Huayi Brothers Movie World. Over a dozen sites are represented in the photographs here, and there are many more around the country.

Once Upon a Time in Shanghai chinese film industry photo book by Mark Parascandola

Nanjing Road, Shanghai Film Park (photo courtesy the author)

Once Upon a Time in Shanghai chinese film industry photo book by Mark Parascandola

The Sincere Company Department Store, Shanghai Film Park (photo courtesy the author)

My previous book, Once Upon a Time in Almería: The Legacy of Hollywood in Spain, explored a bygone era of Hollywood glamour amid the geopolitics of the Cold War. Once Upon a Time in Shanghai, by contrast, looks toward the future. In 2018, China produced over 1,000 films and 15,000 TV episodes. The Chinese film industry now makes more movies than Hollywood, and China is rapidly taking over as the world’s largest motion picture market.

Across the country, entire towns have been constructed around making movies. Local governments provide financing for these movie towns in hopes of attracting business and tourism. The scale is unparalleled. Movie sets in China are not plywood facades, but monumental fortresses, mazelike palaces, and complete towns and urban neighborhoods of multistory buildings. They have more in common with Cecil B. DeMille’s City of the Pharaoh of a century ago than with today’s digital production factories.

[Chinese movie sets] have more in common with Cecil B. DeMille’s City of the Pharaoh of a century ago than with today’s digital production factories

Once Upon a Time in Shanghai chinese film industry photo book by Mark Parascandola

Filming for TV drama series, China Film Group State, Production Base, Beijing (photo courtesy the author)

Once Upon a Time in Shanghai chinese film industry photo book by Mark Parascandola

Military rally scene, Xiangshan Film and TV City, Ningbo (photo courtesy the author)

The movie towns are in a constant state of flux. The larger sites often host multiple productions at once, while at the same time tourists mill about taking selfies and couples pose in period dress for engagement photographs. Light construction hums in the background, as streets and palaces are reconfigured and storefront signs and architectural details are swapped out. In revisiting these sites over time, I have seen them torn down, rebuilt, and decked out for the next show.

There is a formula at work here. The large-scale outdoor sets reflect specific episodes in China’s history — ancient battles of the Warring States Period, costume dramas of the Qing dynasty, conflicts of the nineteenth century Opium Wars, gangsters in 1930s Shanghai, or resistance under the Japanese occupation. Because so many movies and TV dramas share the same backdrops, filmmakers are able to reuse these locations, instantly recognizable to Chinese audiences, over and over. Historical settings are so prominent, in part, because ongoing censorship in China limits the scope of acceptable narratives.

Historical settings are so prominent, in part, because ongoing censorship in China limits the scope of acceptable narratives

Once Upon a Time in Shanghai chinese film industry photo book by Mark Parascandola

Treasure Hunter movie set, Zhenbeipu Western Film City, Yinchuan (photo courtesy the author)

Once Upon a Time in Shanghai chinese film industry photo book by Mark Parascandola

China Film Group State Production Base, Beijing (photo courtesy the author)

I am especially intrigued by the tension between truth and fiction in these movie towns. Films and photographic images can provide a vivid sense of reality, even when they are based in fiction. Yet these film sets are mere phantoms of the real world. They are constructed from a hodge-podge of incomplete cultural fragments devoid of context — props, architectural details, signs, and billboards. They were not designed to stand on their own, but simply to suggest a narrative, extending only far enough to sustain the illusion. In the end, they are brought to life by the stories that are projected onto them.

Learn more about Once Upon in Shanghai here. Cover photo: Lunch break, Shanghai Film Park.

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Mark Parascandola
    Mark Parascandola is a documentary fine-art photographer based in Washington DC. A PhD epidemiologist by training, he draws on methods of historical and public health research in investigating subjects and locations. His work has been exhibited widely in the US, Spain and China. His photobook Once Upon a Time in Almería: The Legacy of Hollywood in Spain was published by Daylight Books in 2017.