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Chinese scenery

In the Chinese response to Hollywood, they do not use ordinary scenes in their film productions. Instead, they build up ancient China from scratch.


[movie] Musk shots shoot in the air. They are fired from a battle against Japanese enemies. I stand in front of the Forbidden City's grand imperial palace and look out over Canton's old colonial villas. Everything is built in full scale. In the movie town of Hengdian, in the middle of Zhejiang province, you do not use scenes. There you have built up ancient China as it was: in stone, wood and cement.

During my visit, superstars Jackie Chan and Jet Li were in place to record The King of Kung Fu – Gongfu zhi wang. Most of the major Chinese costume films of recent years, such as Hero and The Promise, have been shot here.

The size of the movie city defies all comparisons. Just to build The Forbidden City, the film company blew up 13 small mountains of dynamite. Then 100 guide rollers planned an area of ​​one square kilometer. After five years, an exact copy of the Imperial Palace was ready, that is, as it looked during the Ming Dynasty. Cost: 800 million yuan – around 616 million. In addition, there are Song City and the Cantonese replica with 1800th-century environments, as well as Emperor Qin Shihuang's palace. The latter was built for Chen Kaige's film The Emperor and the Murderer (cost: NOK 154 million). The copies are surprisingly good, even the paintings in the curved ceilings look believable from a distance. To form the street environments, the film and television companies have brought in old, authentic houses from other parts of China.

Despite the huge cost, Hengdian allows the film and television companies to use the environment for free.

Army of extras

During my visit, eleven productions were in progress at the same time. Liu Rongdong, Vice President of Hengdian World Studios, explains that the movies are just an advertising tool. The real revenue comes from tourism. Last year, the movie city had 3,6 million visitors. This made Hengdian the fastest growing tourist destination in China.

The film companies are also lured by an army of 3500 extras, which are available through the Hengdian actor organization.

- If a director calls and wants 500 bald extras tomorrow, we will shave 500 of them until tomorrow, says Liu Rongdong.

The statistics are called hengpiao, "those who operate in Hengdian". One of them, 21-year-old Shi Xinhua, comes walking on Canton Street dressed in a footwear suit, wig with whip in hand. Yesterday he was captain of the Tang Dynasty. Today he has to imagine a city dweller on the street. With a downy mustache and a wry look, he doesn't look exactly like any new Bruce Lee. Still, he has made every effort to go to Hengdian, like thousands of other Chinese youth. Shi earns NOK 15 for eight hours of work as a statistician. It is poorly paid, even in China. His parents begged and asked him to come back to school in Shanghai. They even went down and tried to force him. But Shi refused.

- When they left, they said that from now on I got to eat the bitterness of life on my own.

But Shi doesn't regret the breakup with her parents.

- I want to be an actor! But when truth be told, the chances of being discovered here are not very high.

Behind him come tourist groups with umbrellas lined up to protect against summer. They hunt for the aha feeling over seeing the place where the favorite movie was filmed, and of course the chance to hit a star.

400 productions

Another part of the Hengdian package is a good dose of patriotism. Hengdian's next major construction project is an exact replica of the old Summer Palace. The original in Beijing was looted and set on fire by Franco-British forces in 1860. The ruins have become a symbol of China's degradation during colonialism. The construction costs for Hengdian's summer palace are estimated at NOK 15 billion. According to the plan, everything will be financed by donations. This has led to debate, and experts argue that the money should instead be used to preserve the country's existing cultural heritage – which is under acute threat due to economic developments.

- We hope that the nations that destroyed the Summer Palace will contribute, Liu says.

Patriotism is the main reason why the movie city was initially built. In 1975, a local farmer, Xu Wenrong, started his own textile factory. He became one of the first "peasant contractors" in the then still faithful communist China. The name of the company was the same as the site: Hengdian. In the 1990s, the Hengdian group had grown into a giant group in the electronics building, chemical and pharmaceutical industries.

Much like an old European landowner, Xu actively contributed to society. He had roads built, schools – from primary school to university – and two hospitals for Hengdian's more than 70.000 permanent residents. Even the city cemetery is a gift from Xu Wenrong.

In 1995, he was visited by director Xie Jing. During a dinner, Xie said he had been hired to make the film The Opium War. It was to be completed by China's takeover of Hong Kong in 1997 (the British conquered Hong Kong in 1842 in connection with the Opium War). The problem was one of the buildings had taken so long that they would not meet the deadline. The government began to get nervous and Xie was desperate. Standing on his feet, Xu Wenrong promised to give them everything they needed. Not because he was a filmmaker – he even prefers kung fu short stories to movies. But he regarded the studio as "a contribution to the Chinese film industry from the farmers of Hengdian," says Zeng Yulin, editor-in-chief of the company's own magazine. After three months of intensive work, the 20-hectare recording site was ready. On August 8, 1996, Hengdian was inaugurated. Since then, more than 400 productions have been recorded there. Also several international titles, such as the Finnish kung fu-meets-kalevala turkey Jade Warrior. The action movie Mummy III is underway. The Hengdian group has also invested in a cinema chain and in film production.

Must be politically correct

The bosses in Hengdian like to compare themselves to Hollywood. Liu Rongdong emphasizes that they are larger in area than both Hollywood and Bollywood. That is true, but the Indian and American film industries are blowing in how much land they own. They focus on money and the number of films. And here Hengdian hangs.

Last year, the entire Chinese film industry had a total revenue of more than NOK 4,5 billion. Admittedly, there was an increase of 20 percent. But only the US movie ticket sales were worth 13 times more. The biggest problem is piracy, which makes it difficult to get a real DVD and keeps the price down to a fifth per movie. The censorship is another reason for the profitability problems, says Liu. The films must be politically correct. They are expected to contribute to the building of a "harmonious society", which is the political mantra of Beijing by day.

- The government is campaigning against immorality, so there should not be too much about mistresses and infidelity in the films. It is not allowed to insult heads of state or historically important people. Nor can minorities, their culture and religion, appear in an unfavorable light. It should also not be too violent, too sexy, or encourage crime, Liu says.

Thus, pretty much everything that has made Hong Kong's film industry so successful huff-and-fy on the mainland. The industry is also suffering from a creativity crisis. Time and again, new versions of the classics Journey to the West and The Three Kingdoms are created. It is as if European film had only made quite the same variants of the Odyssey. The crowd is bored to death.

The Chinese, on the other hand, like tumultuous historical wuxia kung fu dramas and TV series. Zhang Yimous's Curse of the Golden Flower became last year's most successful movie with ticket sales of 280 million. It was recorded in Hengdian.

- How long do you think the trend of kungfu costume dramas will last?

- It has come to stay. And should it die out, we can do without the movies. We make our money on tourism, says Liu.

Translated by Kristian Bjørkdahl

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