“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 neighborhoods of multistory buildings,” explains photographer Mark Parascandola.
The Washington-based photographer embarked on numerous trips to China over a five-year period to capture images of the sets used by the country’s enormous domestic movie industry. His photos were collected in a book titled Once Upon a Time in Shanghai, which includes an essay by Michael Berry, a professor in the department of Asian languages and culture at UCLA.
In 2018 alone, China’s film industry produced over 1,000 films and 15,000 TV episodes, and to create many of them, producers relied on fully-constructed buildings and towns, as opposed to the partial structures and camera tricks used in other countries. He took photos at 13 of the lots that have recreated everything from 1930s Shanghai to a bizarro space labyrinth.
Films in China must be officially approved, and thus certain eras or subjects are ignored while others appear again and again. Historical periods such as the Warring States Period, the Qing dynasty, 19th century Opium Wars and the Japanese occupation are all acceptable settings for television and the big screen, and thus the same backdrops are used repeatedly and they become “instantly recognizable to Chinese audiences,” Parascandola says.
Equal parts interesting for the glimpse they give into the sheer scale of China’s film industry and a peek into the aesthetics of past decades, even those who have never seen a single Chinese movie or show should find something to marvel at in Parascandola’s shots. Take a gander below:
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