Five years ago, Mark Parascandola, a documentary fine-art photographer based in Washington, D.C., went to China for three months on a fellowship. There, he read an article about movie studios around Beijing, some of which were open to visitors. So, the next weekend, he went to the sprawling China Film Group back lot in Huairou outside Beijing. “I wandered among recreated Chinese villages, hutong lanes, ancient fortress walls, and streets of early 20th Century Shanghai,” he says. “It was my first introduction to a vast world of mainland Chinese cinema culture that I knew almost nothing about.”
That was the start of a project that has taken five years of research and repeated visits to movie-production sites across China, and which has culminated in a new photobook, Once Upon a Time in Shanghai (Daylight Books). The book contains images taken by Mark at 13 such sites all over the country, including Hengdian World Studios, purported to be the world’s largest production facility; the rustic Western Film City on the edge of the desert in Ningxia Province; 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.
The fact underlying the series is that the Chinese film industry is already a behemoth and is having an increasing impact globally. In 2018, China produced over 1,000 films and 15,000 TV episodes; its film industry now makes more movies than Hollywood, and China is rapidly taking over as the world’s largest motion-picture market. “Thus,” says Mark, “it’s likely we will see more Chinese films, and Chinese influence in Hollywood films in the future.”
This isn’t the first time Mark has turned his lens on a country’s film industry. Two years ago, he released Once Upon a Time in Almería: The Legacy of Hollywood in Spain (Daylight Books, 2017), which explored a bygone era of cinema history, focusing on desert landscapes and Old West towns in the south of Spain that appeared in international films in the 1960s and 70s.
“What sets China apart, though, is the enormous scale of its infrastructure for movie and television production,” says Mark. “Across the country, entire towns have been constructed around making movies. Moreover, movie sets in China are not mere plywood facades, but monumental fortresses, maze-like palaces, and complete urban neighbourhoods of multistory buildings.” As a photographer, he says he was “intrigued by the architecture of the sets and the bustling activity around them”.
In many ways, this new book is in dialogue with Mark’s previous series focused on Spain. “In both projects, I am intrigued by a tension between truth and make-believe,” he explains. “Films and photographic images can sometimes provide a vivid sense of reality, even when they are based in fiction. Yet outside the movie screen, these film sets appear cobbled together from a hodgepodge of incomplete cultural fragments. They weren’t designed to stand on their own, extending only far enough to sustain the illusion.”
There’s also an interesting political parallel at play here. In both Spain and China, cinema has been used as a form of subtle cultural propaganda. “In Spain, under the Franco dictatorship, the regime welcomed Hollywood filmmakers, hoping to portray a friendlier image of Spain to the world,” says Mark. “Today, China seeks to expand its own global influence, making use of cultural ‘soft power’ much as Hollywood was used to spread American values.”
Similarly, within China, there is a great deal of censorship, which limits the scope of acceptable historical narratives. Therefore, certain sets depicting particular episodes in China’s history – the Warring States Period, the Qing dynasty, the 19th Century Opium Wars, 1930s Shanghai, or the Japanese occupation – recur over and over again. “Because so many movies and TV dramas share the same backdrops, filmmakers are able to reuse these locations, instantly recognisable to Chinese audiences, over and over,” Mark explains.
The photographs in Once Upon a Time in Shanghai, like the sets they depict, instantly transport the viewer to a different time and a far-off place. But then, on closer inspection, the artifice and the fragility of the sets is always visible, lurking somewhere in the image. Like the fictions they’re used to create, they are often hollow and paper-thin.
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