It’s a familiar sight around Sydney’s iconic landmarks – Chinese couples dressed in full wedding regalia, posing in front of the Opera House or the Harbour Bridge. Meanwhile, in Shanghai, millions more couples who can’t make the trip overseas are catered for by studios offering backdrops that recreate European and other opulent locations. Shot months before the actual wedding, the photos are not a record of the day itself but are aspirational, depicting the bride and groom in settings that evoke an affluent western lifestyle.
This multi billion-dollar industry is the subject of photographer turned filmmaker Olivia Martin-McGuire. As an Australian documentary photographer based in Shanghai, Martin-McGuire has exhibited her work widely, shoots for international publications and is part of the Instagram group of the Eyes on China documentary photo and video storytellers.
China Love is her first feature length documentary and the film is currently in competition at the Sydney Film Festival. The director is supported by a crew of considerable female power, including editor Bernadette Murray and producers Rebecca Barry and Madeleine Hetherton, founders of Media Stockade and directors of award winning documentaries in their own right.
“I’ve always done photography,” Martin-McGuire told FilmInk after the premiere screening. “But I was interested in film from early on. I made a couple of shorts when I was young, with feminist themes. The idea for China Love came from my street photography in Shanghai. I was fascinated by the wedding photography you see everywhere. I first pitched the project as a stills series to Australian magazines.”
She also broached the concept with Hetherton during a course at AFTRS. It took three years to gather funding, but the idea stood the test and emerged as a fully formed documentary. A major backer is the ABC Arts Create NSW Documentary Feature Fund.
“The process was a journey of discovery as more and deeper layers of cultural life were revealed,” Martin-Maguire explains. That discovery is shared by the audience as Shanghai’s hordes of bridal couples are perceived very differently from the first and last tracking shots that bookend the film.
Having set the scene with fresh, lucid cinematography, the director reveals a poignant back story underpinning the extravaganza. From 1966 to 1976, China’s Cultural Revolution under Chairman Mao Zedong suppressed more than free speech as millions were killed by the regime. As told movingly by older Chinese couples featured in the documentary, they were allowed only a single black and white passport style photo on their wedding day. There were no Vera Wang dresses and absolutely no affluent west-inspired backdrops. The revolution was a cultural trauma that left a huge emotional gap.
The documentary also reveals the massive social pressure to marry. There are marriage markets where parents advertise their children and offer financial inducements. Mothers especially are shamed if their daughters remain on the shelf; the local term for a single female over 28 is ‘leftover.’
With so many story strands, the film covers a lot of ground, sometimes with a few too many scenes for each topic. The problem is there’s such a wealth of fascinating material that would be hard to lose, especially in scenes where the older generation begin to open up about the repression they suffered in the Revolution.
And then there’s Allan Shi, the epitome of ‘poverty to riches’ entrepreneur who chairs the Jiahao Group wedding photography company. Jiahao has 2000 bookings a day, 7000 employees and 300 studios in seven countries and America in their sights. The brand has rigid standards for every aspect of their wedding photo services, from hair styles to poses to lighting, with penalties for staff who fail. This is a big dream for sale and Shi is a front runner with a turnover of more than US $1.5 billion a year, mirroring China’s place as the world’s fastest growing economy with the most self-made millionaires.
Martin-McGuire has given us a timely, insightful glimpse of Chinese cultural life. Her framing and sense of where to place emotional emphasis is adept, and her use of long tracking shots punctuated by focused interviews offers a great sense of Shanghai’s environment, and context for her subjects. She says she has ‘a few ideas’ percolating for the next project. “This was my first feature so I learned a lot. I’ll do some things differently, better, on the next one.”
The documentary has attracted theatrical release in August and a likely cut for TV version at the end of the year. The producers and director hope for an Asian market too, though they commented after the screening that a Chinese audience wouldn’t find the topic as intriguing as we do. For the Chinese, creating a dream of opulence with a pre-wedding photo day is universal practice. Thanks to China Love we can better understand the reasons behind this fascinating custom.