Mark Parascandola: Once Upon a Time

Published on 08/29/ 2019

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.

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.

My previous book, Once Upon a Time in Almería: The Legacy of Hollywood in Spain (Daylight Books, 2017), explored a bygone era of Hollywood glamour amid the geopolitics of the Cold War. Once Upon a Time in Shanghai, in 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.

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.

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.
Check out Mark Parascandola's previous teaser of his book Once Upon a Time in Almeria: The Legacy of Hollywood in Spain HERE.