Eastern metropolis plays host to Western movie shoots

They used to call it Shollywood. In the 1930s, Shanghai had a studio system, dozens of movie theaters and even its own homegrown starlets. But the Chinese Revolution in 1949 brought the bamboo curtain down on the city’s showbiz folk, and the movie industry was junked. Now the city is back center stage, recently hosting “Mission: Impossible III,” Warner Independent’s “Painted Veil” and Merchant Ivory’s “White Countess.”

“One of the great things about these films is that their crews are a mix of local and overseas talent,” says Maria Barbieri, an Italian freelance producer who has been based in Shanghai since 1998 and worked on “The Great Raid,” “Code 46″ and “The Painted Veil,” among others. “The Chinese crews have got so much experience now.”

Currently line producer on an Italian feature called “The Two Tigers,” Barbieri suspects that most foreign producers pick Shanghai as a location because of its reputation. “In the eyes of a Western audience, Shanghai represents both the most modern bits of China and the old, colonial past. For filmmakers, both of those kinds of locations are available to shoot. You have the ultra-modern skyscrapers in Pudong and the older lanes, temples and colonial buildings on the other side of the river.”

All this comes at a price. “When you do the sums,” she says, “Shanghai has to be the most expensive city in China to shoot in. But it is unique.”

Despite reports from insiders that Shanghai Film Group has applied for permission to offer financial incentives to foreign production companies that choose to shoot here, the city remains costly by Chinese standards. And across the country, foreign producers are still critical of the hidden costs of China’s studio system. One of the most common complaints is that local studios insist on foreign productions hiring a certain number of their staff, even when they aren’t needed.

“Costs can be higher in Shanghai,” says Caddie He, a producer at the co-production wing of Shanghai Film Studio. “But facilities here are better than in a lot of other places, and we have a huge range of locations in the city and nearby at places like Hengdian.”

Hengdian World Studios, located in the neighboring province of Zhejiang, is one of the largest film bases in Asia, with 13 permanent sets, including an almost full-sized version of Beijing’s Forbidden Palace, ancient and modern city streets and a quaint rural townscape. The location also claims to have 3,000 extras on call for those occasions when CGI crowds just won’t do the trick. Large sections of Zhang Yimou’s hit “Hero” were shot in Shanghai.

Hengdian Group is also a partner in the only Sino-foreign film production company in China. Warner China Film HG Corp.’s first pic, which wraps this month, is set in Shanghai. Lu Chao, line producer on “Telephone 601,” explains why the two entities picked the city. “The script was originally set in Beijing, but it was changed for a couple of reasons. First of all, Shanghai seemed like a better fit for a contemporary story. This is the most developed city in the country after all. And it is very convenient working with the Shanghai Film Group. And the weather was also a big issue. It’s just much nicer in Shanghai in April and May.”

Spielberg to the rescue

Shanghai owes its return to the limelight in part to Steven Spielberg.

When the Communist Party took control of China in 1949, film was refashioned as revolutionary propaganda. For 30 years, movies were the mouthpiece of the party, their scripts thinly disguised versions of the latest edicts from Beijing, where most production had moved.

The end of the Cultural Revolution in 1976 saw popular cinema reborn, but Shanghai now found itself a poor second to the capital, which was home to China’s only movie academy as well as the best studios and post-production facilities. With much of Shanghai’s directing and acting talent heading north to study and find work, the city struggled to find its feet as a production base.

The arrival of Spielberg in 1986, in town to shoot sections of “The Empire of the Sun,” put Shanghai back on the map. The helmer’s decision to shoot in the city, rather than find a look-alike location, bucked the trend. Though Shanghai’s name has often been featured in Hollywood pics, some of the best-known Shanghai shoots never came there. In “Shanghai Express,” for example, Marlene Dietrich barely ventured beyond California, and although Madonna and Sean Penn headed east for “Shanghai Surprise,” they got no further than Hong Kong.

Foreign interest began to peak again in 2002, when John Dahl (“The Last Seduction”) picked the Shanghai Film Studio theme park/back lot at Chedun to shoot a large chunk of his World War II rescue epic “The Great Raid.” With its Hollywood-sized budget, grand sets and well-known cast (Joseph Fiennes, Benjamin Bratt), the film proved that Shanghai could accommodate large overseas productions. Significantly, the Miramax-backed movie was not set in China at all; the country acted as a stand-in for 1940s Manila in the Philippines.

“For films looking for elaborate sets — set in Europe or colonial Asia for example — Shanghai is a great location,” said producer Marty Katz at the time. “It won’t pan for New York, but then not many places will.” Not everything was plain sailing. “I have issues with any studio that is trying to be a theme park at the same time,” said Katz. “Yesterday, they had 900 school kids wandering around in the background. We were promised that they would curtail activities. They will be hearing from us about that.”

Such hiccups did not put off a string of pics that followed, including Michael Winterbottom’s “Code 46,” starring Tim Robbins and set in an unnamed city of the future, Wong Kar Wai’s “2046,” Kurt Wimmer’s “Ultraviolet,” Merchant Ivory’s “The White Countess,” “Mission: Impossible III” and “The Painted Veil,” which stars Edward Norton, Liev Schreiber and Naomi Watts and will be released in the fall.

SHANGHAI EXPRESS

What: Shanghai Intl. Film Fest

When: June 17-25

Jury: Producer-helmer Luc Besson (prexy); helmers Stanley Kwan, Feng Xiaogang, Manuel Gutierrez Aragon, Kyung-Taek Kwak and Gabriele Salvatores; producer Duncan Kenworthy; and thesps Diana Bracho and Xu Jinglei.

Competish lineup:
“Burnt Out” (France) Dir: Fabienne Godet
“Cafe Setareh” (Iran) Dir: Saman Moghadam
“Cities and Love” (Argentina) Dir: Teresa Costantini
“The Color of the Sense” (Argentina) Dirs: Norman Ruiz, Liliana Romero
“The Forest Ranger” (China) Dir: Qi Jian
“Four Minutes” (Germany) Dir: Chris Kraus
“The Land” (Italy) Dir: Sergio Rubini
“Lucid” (Canada) Dir: Sean Garrity
“Love Belongs to Everyone” (Belgium) Dir: Hilde Van Mieghem
“The Music Box” (China) Dir: Chen Yifei
“Nina’s Journey” (Sweden-Poland) Dir: Lena Einhorn
“The Perfume of the Lady in Black” (France) Dir: Bruno Podalydes
“River Queen” (New Zealand) Dir: Vincent Ward
“Shop of Dreams” (Estonia-Finland) Dir: Peeter Urbla
“The Thing About My Folks” (U.S.) Dir: Raymond De Felitta
“Without Her” (Canada) Dir: Jean Beaudin
“You Are My Sunshine” (Korea) Dir: Jin-Pyo Park

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