An image from Once Upon a Time in Shanghai Credit: Mark Parascandola

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By day, Mark Parascandola is an epidemiologist and global health researcher focused on cancer prevention. But he’s been doing fine art photography for more than 25 years, and conducting extensive research before he takes any photographs. His previous projects include a history of a Spanish prison complex which housed political prisoners, and a history of filmmaking in the south of Spain. Now the D.C.-area documentary photographer has taken a deep dive into China’s super-sized mainland movie industry for his most recent book, Once Upon a Time in Shanghai, about which he spoke in-depth with City Paper via email.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity. 

WCP: How did you get introduced to the Chinese film industry and why were you interested in it?

Mark Parascandola: I first became fascinated with movie sets through my earlier project, Once Upon a Time in Almería: The Legacy of Hollywood in Spain, which focused on the legacy of international movie productions in the south of Spain during the 1960s and 1970s. Five years ago, I spent three months living in Beijing on a fellowship. While there, I happened to read an article in a local expat paper about movie studios around Beijing, some of which were open to visitors. I began visiting some of these sites and was captivated by the enormous palaces, fortresses, and city streets constructed as film sets. Since then, over the past five years, I have continued researching, visiting, and photographing movie production sites around China. I have made numerous trips to visit major film and television production sites, of which 13 are represented in the images in the book.

WCP: Why should Americans care about the Chinese film industry?

MP: China produces more films than Hollywood. We read a lot about China in the news today, but there is a vast world of mainland Chinese film culture that has not yet received broad exposure in the U.S. In 2018, China produced more than 1,000 films and 15,000 TV episodes. China is poised to take over as the world’s largest motion picture market, overtaking the U.S. China is building new movie theaters at an incredible rate. This year, China overtook the U.S. as the country with the largest number of movie screens—more than 68,000 as of December. Given the size of its market, China has a growing influence on Hollywood, and it is likely that we will see more Chinese films, and Chinese influence in Hollywood films, in the future.

WCP: Do you find the sets to be impressive in real life? Or are they Potemkin villages?

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MP: What sets China apart is the enormous scale of its infrastructure for movie and television production. Across the country, entire towns have been constructed around making movies. Local governments provide financing for these movie towns in hopes of attracting business and tourism. These sets are as impressive in real life as they are on the screen. Their scale is enormous. These movie sets are not simply facades—they are monumental fortresses, maze-like palaces, and complete urban neighborhoods of multi-story buildings. For example, at Hengdian World Studios, they have constructed a full-scale replica of Beijing’s Forbidden City. At the same time, despite their scale and permanence, these constructions can appear artificial in person, as they lack the signs of age that true historical monuments have.

WCP: How do they differ from American sets?

MP: The legendary back lots of Hollywood studios are long gone. These days, production is more often done on location or enhanced with computer-generated imagery. The massive sets constructed in China evoke an earlier time, such as Cecil B DeMille’s City of the Pharaoh of a century ago. In China, constructing these massive, permanent sets still makes sense because they are able to be reused over and over again. There is a formula at work here. The large-scale outdoor sets reflect specific episodes in China’s history—ancient battles of the Warring States Period, costume dramas of the Qing dynasty, conflicts of the 19th century Opium Wars, gangsters in 1930s Shanghai, or resistance under the Japanese occupation.

At any given time, there are probably dozens of TV shows streaming in China that are set in the Forbidden City. Because so many movies and TV dramas share the same backdrops, filmmakers are able to reuse these locations, which are instantly recognizable to Chinese audiences. In order to maintain these production sites, many of them are also open to tourism or serve as sites for wedding and engagement photo shoots.

WCP: What degree of artistic freedom do the filmmakers who shoot there have?

MP: Part of the reason historical settings are so prominent in Chinese films is due to censorship restrictions. The state film administration, which regulates production and exhibition of films in China, prohibits certain themes. For example, horror films and ghost stories are largely prohibited under current rules. Sexual or political content is often restricted. Setting stories in the past is one means of avoiding running afoul of censors. At the same time, state institutions have provided support for films that may serve as propaganda. For example, the 2009 picture The Founding of a Republic, which included a star-studded cast of leading Chinese actors, was made by the state-owned China Film Group to mark the 60th anniversary of the People’s Republic of China. So, state regulations have contributed to the focus on historical narratives and have provided an economic rationale for building enormous film sets that will be reused over and over. 

WCP: How unfettered was your access to these sites? What’s it like walking around them?

MP: Some of these sites, such as Hengdian World Studios, are regularly open for visitors. These are busy locations, with film shoots going on, tourists milling about, and couples doing wedding photographs. Even during filming, it is sometimes possible to get up close. It was odd to be wandering about a fake Forbidden City with throngs of Chinese tourists who had chosen to come here rather than the real Forbidden City in Beijing. However, other sites are not as easily accessible. I hired a Chinese-speaking research assistant to help with locating information online about movie sites in China. In some cases, information online was very limited. So sometimes I traveled to a location not knowing exactly what I would find or if I would even be able to get access. But I just went and hoped for the best. 

The cathedral from Zhang Yimou’s The Flowers of War is not open for visitors. I located it based on a blog post a few years old and Google satellite photos. It’s a few miles from the Nanjing airport, so just had a taxi drop me off nearby and had to hike through woods and brush to find it. One of my favorite sites is the old back lot from the Beijing Film Studio. What little remains is overgrown, decaying, and slated for demolition. But this makes it all the more intriguing. When I last visited, a family of caretakers was living there. When they saw me taking photographs, they began shouting at me for being there without permission. But in the end, as I tried to talk with them about what I was doing, in broken English and bits of Chinese, they invited me into their home (a small hut that was part of the film set) for tea.  

WCP: What types of views especially interested you? Do you have any particular favorites, and if so, why?

MP: China is full of striking contrasts. One thing that stands out to me visiting these film sets is the contrast between the content of the films being made, which are mostly historical, and the rapid pace and scale of modernization in China. In some of the photos this contrast is evident when you see actors on break in period costume looking at their smart phones. While the past is rapidly disappearing in China as old neighborhoods are razed to make room for new construction, it is intriguing that the most popular and talked about shows are those that take place in another time.

The Shanghai Film Park is another one of my favorite sites. An hour’s drive outside Shanghai, the film lot includes reconstruction of several blocks of Nanjing Road, a famous shopping street, circa 1930s. This set has been used countless times in films, TV shows, and other productions. For example, the Sincere Company Department Store—on the real Nanjing Road another store now occupies the space—is seen in everything from Ang Lee’s Lust, Caution to a surreal Prada commercial directed by Chinese artist Yang Fudong.

WCP: What are some of the technical details of your photographs?

MP: I shoot in digital format as it gives me control over the entire process, from capturing the photo to the final print. My primary camera is a Canon 5D Mark III camera, along with two or three key lenses, including a tilt-shift lens for architecture. Editing the resulting images and creating prints is also an important and consuming part of the process. While I do not substantially alter the elements in the image, the colors and lighting are chosen and adjusted to give a particular mood or atmosphere. In these photographs I have sought out strong colors and lighting, reflecting how these locations appear in the films. The final product is the printed work. For me, selecting a set of images and sequence to tell a story in a book format has been the most challenging aspect, but also the most fulfilling.

Parascandola speaks at Politics and Prose at Union Market on Jan. 9 at 7 p.m.

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