History and Fantasy at a Vast Chinese Studio

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19.12.2018 75

By Steven Lee Myers

HENGDIAN, China — If you are going to make a movie in China about ancient warriors defending a mythical kingdom or a partisan resisting the Japanese occupation in the 1930s, or involving any variation of that staple of China’s entertainment industry — the back-stabbing concubine drama — chances are you are going to make it in Hengdian.

The city is home to Hengdian World Studios, which claims to be the world’s largest outdoor movie and television lot. It is not one lot, though, but 13 of them, over more than 1,000 hectares in and around what was once a farming village in the hills of Zhejiang Province in eastern China.

There are other studios in China — Shanghai Film Park, for example. Only in Hengdian, though, is a recreation of the palace of Qin Shi Huang, who ruled in the third century B.C. near what is today known as Xi’an, or the capital of the Northern Song dynasty, which reigned from the 10th to the 12th centuries. There is even a Forbidden City that is not only startlingly realistic, but also only a little smaller than the real thing in Beijing.

The one thing that might seem to be missing from its huge front gate is the photograph of Mao Zedong — except that the gate was built to look as it did during the Ming dynasty, not the later version known since the 17th century as Tiananmen. “These scenes today no longer exist,” said Guo Huizhong, a director.

Filmmaking blurs the distinction between reality and fantasy, and Hengdian World Studios arguably does that better than any other place.

“This is where the empress committed suicide,” a studio assistant, Xu Hailei, said on a tour of the faux Forbidden City. “She jumped from there,” Ms. Xu said, describing a historical fact of 18th-century China, the death of Empress Fucha, but also a scene in one of the most sensational dramas of the year, “The Story of Yanxi Palace,” a 70-episode epic.

“Yanxi Palace” streamed on iQiyi, China’s version of Netflix, from July to August, and continues to do so in China and dozens of other countries. Streamed 20 billion times, its popularity has influenced everything from fashion to the debate over China’s struggling #MeToo campaign.

It has also attracted more visitors to Hengdian, which distributes maps and postcards showing the sites where the series was filmed, including the building of the title, which means the Palace of Prolonged Happiness.

That is where the concubines of the Qing dynasty emperors lived and conspired until the place burned down in the middle of the 19th century. The one in the Forbidden City is a reconstruction from 1931.

Ye Yunfeng, 24, came with her boyfriend from Lishui, a city not far to the south, because she wanted to see the hall where the emperor’s Grand Council met.

“The details of this show are very good,” she explained. “Many details, like the clothes, the headdresses and the backdrops, are in line with history.”

The creators of “Yanxi Palace,” and its fans, judging from comments posted online, credit its success in large part to the attention to historical detail. Artisanal embroiderers, for example, recreated the dresses and headdresses of the era — 3,000 outfits.

Hengdian World Studios was founded in 1996 by one of China’s first billionaires, Xu Wenrong. His Hengdian Group made a fortune in electronic components in the early years of the country’s capitalist transition. When an acquaintance needed a location for a film, “The Opium War,” about China’s loss to Britain in the 19th century, Mr. Xu agreed to build one in the company’s hometown.

Since then, more than 2,400 films and television series have been made at the studio.

There are 400 distinct spaces where filming can take place, covering the entire breadth of China’s history, its culture and its architecture.

Two areas recreate Guangzhou and Hong Kong as they looked in the 19th century, built for “The Opium War,” and another reproduces the Imperial Summer Palace, which was sacked by British and French soldiers in 1860. Its ruins are preserved in Beijing.

There is also a recreation of the Communist Party’s wartime base in Yan’an and a replica of a Buddhist temple whose original has since been closed to the public.

“Many people learn history through television dramas,” said Zheng Junnan, a production assistant for amelodrama set in the Qing dynasty.

Yuxuan Honghao, a 26-year-old actor on the set of a series about concubines, said the attention to historic details had not always been a priority in the past, but “The Story of Yanxi Palace” is already encouraging others to follow.

“The things in history books are one side; they are only textual,” he said. “Films and television dramas can restore Chinese history as much as possible, and people can see what it was like.”

© 2018 New York Times News Service

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