In college I moved to Los Angeles and spent my last semester working in a movie studio. Being an intern my job was sometimes to run around delivering things, and as a result I ended up waling around almost all the major movie studios. While I never got to sneak around indoor sets, I did see plenty of outdoor sets used in dozens of movies and tv shows.
But it’s got nothin’ on China’s movie studio. In China’s most famous movie making town, Hengdian, history is recreated on a near equal scale of the originals, all ready for filming. The studio city is located a few hours away from where I live and a place I have always wanted to go to.
It is truly a studio city, not merely a set. That’s because China has a history of grand palaces, towering buildings and epic landscapes. And they are recreated here in almost full scale, so it takes over the whole town. Filming in places like the real Forbidden City, the sprawling complex in Beijing, is a logistical nightmare. You would need to close it for a few days, get rid of all the traces of modernity and try not to ruin any of the precious antiques while making a movie. It’s just not feasible.
But in Hangdian there is shiny, new Forbidden City that was made specifically for filming. It’s easy to set in any time period (everything is removable and the place has all the necessary props) and if you break something, it’s probably just styrofoam, plywood or concrete and easily fixable. The only downside is they have to deal with the tourists. The place is free to film in, but it’s up to the movie to keep the tourists out of the frame. Rumor has it that sometimes tourists get to be involved in scenes that need large audiences. And in fact, the town’s population has been steadily growing as more people move there to be involved in the film industry. Since they are epic sets, set in epic times, there is a high demand for extras to play farmers, soldiers or palace staff. The pay is better, and the job is easier than migrant work, so they come and stay hoping for more roles.
The place is so huge, each set has it’s own location in the town. We spent about 5 hours there and only managed to go to 3 locations. (I never saw the Forbidden City set, sadly.) The first place we went to was a set with Qing and Ming era buildings and sets. No sprawling palace this was more of an area for daily life scenes, probably mostly used in all the historical dramas on Chinese TV. But nothing was being filmed when we were there and all the shops were filled with stuff for tourists to buy. It’s a place made for photo opportunities which we took advantage of.
The most impressive set we saw was the Qin Palace. The real one is long destroyed and just ruins now, but made almost to full scale, this fake one was quite impressive. The door had huge knockers (heh, heh), the walls were huge and towering, and the guide explained there were several gates that barred entrance to keep out attackers.
The steps up to the palace were just as grand as they looked in movies that were shot here, like Hero, and they even had a mock ceremony “crowning” the emperor, which had acrobatics, dancing and musicians all in period clothes. It sounds a tad cheesy, and it was, but I liked it.
Here’s the thing about the whole day. You know it’s all fake, it’s all made to look like the ancient stuff, but so what? I have been to dozens of historic places in China, from the Great Wall to Shaolin Temple and truth is, it’s all fake. I mean, sure it was real at some point, and some of the stones might be original somewhere, but with the erosion of time, natural disasters and that little incident called the Cultural Revolution, most of the “real” sites have been destroyed and rebuilt in the 90’s. I mean, most of Shaolin Temple’s history is burning and destroying of the place.
So if I can walk the ‘broken bridge’ and pagoda on the West Lake (all of it recently rebuilt) and imagine the history of the place, I can walk around a movie set and imagine the past as well.
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