China is the second largest film market in the world, after the U.S., and it continues to grow. Box office receipts amounted to $62.8 billion in 2015, a 49% increase over the previous year. Around the country, entire towns have been constructed for the sole purpose of making movies. Hengdian World Studios, now the largest film base in the world, consists of five distinct film villages across 2,500 acres, including a full-size replica of the Forbidden City. The sets themselves have become so familiar to the domestic movie audience that they now attract millions of visitors every year and serve as backdrops for wedding and engagement photos.
Despite the enormous scale of the constructions represented in these photographs, all of the architecture is merely fabricated for the movies. The settings portray various aspects of Chinese history. While most films produced here get little attention outside the Chinese market, the state-run film industry is working to change that. Just as Hollywood became an essential tool for U.S. ‘soft power’ diplomacy in the twentieth century, China’s growing film industry seeks to have a similar global influence in this century.
As in my previous work looking at film locations in Spain, I am fascinated by how movies can, through fiction and make-believe constructions, shape our beliefs about other cultures and about our own history. Given strict censorship codes in China, period films provide a safe and familiar format to tell stories based around “official” narratives. However, historical films can be, and are, also used to make veiled criticisms about current policies. Thus, the setting portrayed on film may, in fact, be a stand in for another (more immediate) reality.