China’s Sprawling Movie Sets Put Hollywood to Shame

Sometime in the next year or two, China will likely surpass the United States as the world’s biggest movie market. With a population of 1.4 billion, China already has more movie screens and sells more tickets than any other country. This year, it’s projected to generate $11.05 billion in revenue compared to America’s $12.11 billion. Although the pace has slowed in recent years, China’s box office receipts grew by an average of 35 percent a year over the past decade. This has given the country’s Communist Party leaders extraordinary clout with Hollywood studios eager to get their films into the lucrative but tightly censored Chinese market.

But because of strict limits on foreign film imports, domestic movies still dominate Chinese cinemas; in 2018, 398 Chinese pictures were released in theaters compared to 118 foreign films. Shooting that many films requires a lot of movie studios, so China’s largely state-controlled film industry has been on a building spree for the past couple decades. Hengdian World Studios, built in the 1990s on farmland in China’s southeastern Zhejiang Province, claims to be the world’s largest outdoor film studio and features full-scale replicas of the Forbidden City and Beijing’s Old Summer Palace, along with dozens of palaces, gardens, and streetscapes.

Hengdian is just one of the Chinese mega-studios documented by Washington, DC-based photographer Mark Parascandola for his new book, Once Upon a Time in Shanghai. The project is something of a sequel to Parascandola’s 2012 series Once Upon a Time in Almeria, in which the photographer explored abandoned Spanish movie sets from golden-age Hollywood classics like Cleopatra and Lawrence of Arabia. Such over-the-top historical epics have largely gone out of fashion in America, but they’re still massively popular in China, where studios churn out hundreds of historical films every year. “They’re on a scale far bigger than anything you’d see in Hollywood these days,” Parascandola says.

Chinese movie studios favor historical themes in part out of self-censorship. It’s easier to avoid controversial subjects in a movie set during the Ming Dynasty or during moments of national pride like the resistance to Japanese occupation in the 1930s. “Setting a film in the past is a way to tell a story without involving current political issues,” Parascandola explains. “At the same time, history is itself censored to a degree—you don’t see many films about the Cultural Revolution, for instance.”

Because so many films and television shows are made about the same historical periods, studios are willing to spend the money to build high-quality sets that can be used again and again, as with the full-scale Forbidden City replica at Hengdian World Studios or the hyper-realistic World War II-era Shanghai streets at Shanghai Film Park. “They’re real buildings, not just plywood facades,” Parascandola says. The sets are so impressive that they draw paying tourists, which is how Parascandola gained access to many of them. Some couples even shoot their wedding photos on the sets.

While making the series, Parascandola immersed himself in contemporary Chinese cinema, which he found more interesting than he imagined, despite the censorship. “There’s this fascinating world of Chinese movies out there that we really don’t get to learn much about in the US,” Parascandola says. “There are some really great films being made.”

Reversing the longtime trend of Hollywood sending its hits overseas, top Chinese movies are increasingly being screened in American cinemas and showing up on American streaming services. Earlier this year, the sci-fi blockbuster The Wandering Earth, the second-highest-grossing film in Chinese box office history, got a limited American theatrical release; it’s now available on Netflix. It got mixed reviews from American critics, but its arrival in the States could be sign of things to come. Hey, something’s gotta compete with Star Wars, right?

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