Made in China

{ } Is the Chi­nese film in­dus­try con­cen­trated in Heng­dian set to over­take Hol­ly­wood?

Asian Geographic - - Picturesque -



from the ul­tra-mod­ern mega­lopo­lis of Shanghai, no­body would be­lieve that a four-hour bus ride through eight­lane ex­press­ways, fol­lowed by a bumpy, mostly un­paved road would lead to the Chi­nese ver­sion of Hol­ly­wood. Heng­dian, a city of around 200,000 peo­ple in the eastern part of Zhe­jiang Prov­ince is where, as­ton­ish­ingly, around 20 per­cent of all Chi­nese movies and TV se­ries are filmed.

“In the 20 years since film­ing ac­tiv­i­ties started, some 1,800 ti­tles have been pro­duced here, in­clud­ing big hits such as Zhang Yi­mou’s Hero and Hol­ly­wood’s The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Em­peror,” Heng­dian Group’s spokesman Zeng Yul­ing says. “At any given time, up to 40 sto­ries can be tak­ing shape in our hun­dreds of sets. Last year alone, 250 di­rec­tors worked in the city, where more than 50,000 peo­ple are reg­is­tered as ac­tors.”

It soon be­comes clear that Heng­dian is no or­di­nary city. In fact, its ar­chi­tec­ture seems tai­lor-made for movie sets. Its build­ings form a col­lec­tive of 5,000 years of Chi­nese his­tory: palaces from ev­ery dy­nasty, which once al­lowed for­mer em­per­ors to en­ter­tain con­cu­bines with­out the in­ter­rup­tion of anti-cor­rup­tion cam­paigns; lav­ish Euro­pean colo­nial-era man­sions, which once har­boured gang­sters and lib­er­tine women; the cob­ble­stone streets where Kuom­intang flags were not banned, where atroc­i­ties com­mit­ted by Ja­panese im­pe­rial

Heng­dian wants to cash in, and it has ev­ery­thing to suc­ceed. “Three decades ago, this was just farm­land where peo­ple even had trou­ble sur­viv­ing,” Zeng ex­plains. “Then, the gov­ern­ment de­cided to fol­low a dif­fer­ent de­vel­op­ment path and chose to at­tract the boom­ing film in­dus­try, rather than build­ing man­u­fac­tur­ing fa­cil­i­ties. They cre­ated all the in­fra­struc­ture and to­day, still charge no fees for shooting here, be­cause the au­thor­i­ties be­lieve that it cre­ates jobs and brings rev­enue through taxes levied on the ser­vice in­dus­try.”

Al­most 300 stu­dios have es­tab­lished rep­re­sen­ta­tive of­fices in Heng­dian, and around 700 com­pa­nies make up the fab­ric of busi­nesses sup­port­ing the in­dus­try. There are fur­ni­ture man­u­fac­tur­ing ar­ti­sans, made-to-or­der im­pe­rial cos­tume com­pa­nies, vin­tage car col­lec­tors who rent out their ve­hi­cles, and huge warehouses spe­cial­is­ing in all kinds of equip­ment.

Un­sur­pris­ingly, the busi­ness also at­tracts many young ac­tors look­ing to make their for­tune. Sadly, as the 2015 film I Am Some­body showed, most fail mis­er­ably. Zhang Yiguo knows that well. Him­self an ac­tor, he owns a rep­re­sen­ta­tion agency in the cen­tre of town, and re­ceives scores of new ap­pli­cants ev­ery day, with many leav­ing daily, too.

The walls of his of­fice are full of cast­ing pho­to­graphs show­cas­ing men and women with broad smiles and dra­matic frowns. “Most will barely sur­vive as ex­tras, be­cause they can just hope for a char­ac­ter with a sen­tence or two,” Yiguo says, ex­plain­ing: “There are cer­tain con­di­tions to be met. First, you need to speak per­fect Man­darin. Then, you bet­ter be beautiful or so ugly that no­body can take your part. Con­nec­tions help a lot, and you must be pa­tient. Most come from prov­inces where dialects give them a strong ac­cent and they hardly know any­one in the in­dus­try.”

Yao Shan is one such as­pir­ing ac­tress. She comes from the south­ern prov­ince of Guanxi and be­longs to the Yao eth­nic mi­nor­ity. “I started as an ex­tra earn­ing just the min­i­mum of RMB70 [USD10] per day. It was hard to get by,” she re­calls.

Then she re­alised that the skills she at­tained while per­form­ing as a horse rider in a cir­cus could work in her favour, and earn her a higher in­come as a stunt­woman. Now she earns three to four times her orig­i­nal wage as a stunt dou­ble in ac­tion scenes.

“Three decades ago, this was just farm­land where peo­ple even had trou­ble sur­viv­ing”

And… ac­tion! The may­hem un­folds. A crowd of armed men storm the al­ley­way and an enor­mous ball of fire causes a flood of heat to rush into the set. The cam­era­men strug­gle to avoid be­ing hit or burnt while fo­cus­ing on the lead char­ac­ters. Fi­nally, ev­ery­thing goes ac­cord­ing to plan.

And… cut! Smiles break out among sweaty brows. There is some ap­plause. “It has to look spec­tac­u­lar, be­cause au­di­ences are get­ting tired of sto­ries set in this era,” the unit di­rec­tor says. “We have to try to give them some­thing they haven’t seen be­fore.”

And therein lies one of the big­gest prob­lems of 21st-cen­tury films and TV dra­mas. Zhang Bingjiang, di­rec­tor of North by North­west, ex­plains: “There is a wor­ry­ing lack of orig­i­nal­ity in the scripts. The in­dus­try has grown very rapidly, but also in a chaotic way. In­vestors only look for money, while cen­sor­ship cur­tails cre­ativ­ity. There are so many red lines not to be crossed that many choose to stay safe and dull.”

Au­di­ences seem to agree. Even the high­est gross­ing movie of all time, The Mer­maid, has been bashed for its poor script, aw­ful ef­fects and even worse act­ing skills, coined “emo­ji­act­ing”. Zhang Yi­mou’s lat­est movie, The Great Wall, which stars Matt Damon, scored a mea­gre five points on the pop­u­lar film re­view web­site, Douban.

“The only rea­son why Chi­nese peo­ple watch Chi­nese movies is be­cause the gov­ern­ment re­stricts the num­ber of for­eign films – 34 at present – that are al­lowed to be shown in the coun­try,” Zhang ad­mits.

Su­per­star Fan Bing­bing agrees: “We are copy­ing the Amer­i­can model, with a lot of money in­vested in some movies. Tech­ni­cal skills and re­sources are world class,” the ac­tress shares. “The prob­lem is that there are many bad sto­ries, in­vestors know noth­ing about sto­ry­telling, and the mar­ket has not yet ma­tured. Maybe that’s also the rea­son why our films don’t suc­ceed abroad.” Heng­dian in­dus­try lead­ers are con­scious of this and are try­ing to woo for­eign film­mak­ers. “As it hap­pened with the in­dus­try and tech­nol­ogy, we can learn a lot from them,” Zeng says.

Still, op­por­tu­ni­ties are lim­ited be­cause the city’s sets are de­signed to stand as a back­drop for “clas­sic” Chi­nese sto­ries. For ex­am­ple, not far from where the Kuom­intang forces fin­ished their bat­tle against the Com­mu­nists, mar­tial arts spe­cial­ists fight in one of the scenes in the mak­ing of The Hon­our of the Tang Dy­nasty (大唐荣耀), set 1,400 years ago. In­doors, The Lonely Hero of the Desert (大漠孤侠) film starts to shoot with char­ac­ters well-known to the genre: blood­thirsty em­per­ors, foxy con­cu­bines, and con­spir­ing eu­nuchs. But first, di­rec­tor Mai Tian and the cast per­form a solemn Bud­dhist cer­e­mony. He wants to drive away one of the facts Deloitte has pointed out: that 70 per­cent of all sto­ries filmed in China never make it to the com­mer­cial “big” screen.

In that sense, the fate of much of the hard work done on set goes the same way as the many failed ac­tors who slink back out of Heng­dian, and into ob­scu­rity. ag

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