The moment of truth has arrived. Tension fills the air. The unit director is less than satisfied with the results of two rehearsals, but the sun is sinking, a thin rain darkens the grey sky further and the scene must be shot.

“We can’t waste the day! Suit up! It’s an action scene, you have to look enraged!” bellows a voice through a loudspeaker, haranguing the 100 or so extras assembled on set.

This is to be the climax of War Against the Bandits, a television series set during the Japanese occupation and the subsequent civil war, from which Mao Zedong’s Communists emerged victorious. It’s a period of history that has been receiving considerable attention from Chinese film and television production companies and the director mustcapture the imagination of an ever more demanding public.

“It has to look spectacular,” he tells a nervous special-effects crew.

The explosive charges that will turn the cobbled alleyway into “a living hell” have been placed in vases, lamps and anywhere else that might accommodate them. Their cables are connected to a small box that appears to be little more than a car battery, surely too rudimentary a deto­nation device for a scene of such complexity. Nonetheless, the experts are satis­fied. The floor is set alight using oil-soaked rags.

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“Everyone in position! Cameras rolling! Action!”

A furious attack ensues. Nationalist soldiers storm the street, which is engulfed by a giant fireball. They advance, shouting and firing off blank rounds.

Cameras, both fixed and carried on the shoulders of men who stumble through the scene, record the action. The trousers of one operator catch fire and he lets out a scream as an assistant extinguishes the flames. Sitting in front of a battery of monitors, the director seems pleased. “Cut!” he calls out.

Everyone relaxes, some applaud.

War Against the Bandits is just one of the many stories being told in Hengdian, a small town in the city of Dongyang, in eastern Zhejiang province, a four-hour bus ride from Shanghai. Home to about 200,000 people, Hengdian’s census reveals that around 50,000 of these are resident actors. The power the town holds over the audiovisual industry is reflected in statistics that reveal about 20 per cent of all Chinese films and TV series are filmed here; and the town has played host to more than 1,800 productions in the two decades since it first aspired to become the Hollywood of China. This is a comparison that’s repeated everywhere, from official pamphlets to street graffiti, although that particular crown will soon be fiercely contested by prop­erty giant Dalian Wanda’s up-and-coming Oriental Movie Metropolis, in Qingdao, Shandong province.

Every day, a hundred enthusiastic aspiring actors come in. But also dozens of people throw in the towel and leave
Zhang Yiguo, an actor who runs a talent agency in Hengdian

“Most of the foreign-award-winning films – inclu­d­ing Hero [2002], by Zhang Yimou – have been shot [in Heng­dian], as well as 80 per cent of the country’s most popular series,” says Zeng Yulin, head of communications for Hengdian Group. “And we continue to grow, thanks to the 700 companies and 300 studios that have been established here. But among our objectives is the internationalisation of our services. Scenes from The Mummy 3 [2008], for example, were filmed here. And we have managed to attract teams from 28 countries that have helped us to improve the quality of our technicians.”

The Hengdian Group has interests in everything from pharmaceuticals to electronics and owns the main local production company, Hengdian World Studios, which was founded in 1975 and now employs more than 50,000 people.

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In 2004, Hengdian became a film and television industry experimental zone, to which “tourism” was later added. These two industries are among the Communist Party’s priorities as it attempts to reform the economy, with domestic consumption and the service sector as the new engines of growth.

“Twenty-three years ago, there was nothing in Hengdian. It hosted a farming population and the quality of life was very poor. Instead of building factories to get ahead, the authorities opted for the big stage sets,” recalls Zeng. The rice paddies he knew as a child are today backdrops for the giant palaces of past dynasties. Small agricultural co-operatives have made way for talent agencies, prop manu­facturing companies and video-editing studios.

“Last year, 250 directors worked in Hengdian. We have hundreds of sets from all eras. And both the abundance of personnel and the experience in management of resources make it possible to film a series of 30 episodes in only three months, half the time required in any other place,” he says, with undisguised pride.

The Tang Dynasty’s Honour is a soap opera being filmed on a set designed to resemble a 1,400-year-old village. It’s one of those tales of complicated love seasoned with flying martial arts that are so beloved by Chinese audiences. An action scene is about to commence: a battle betweenclans in which a mysterious heroine who hides her beauty behind a veil cuts down her enemies with a few swings of her blade.

A dozen youths practise with weapons in preparation for the scene, choreographed by martial arts expert Master Yin.

“It has to be spectacular but feasible,” he explains during a break. “And it is paramount to put the choreography at the service of the cameras, which record from different angles.”

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Each shot lasts just a few seconds. Despite the ferocity of the action, the wood and stone flooring here is only too real.

“There are occupational hazards. But it’s worth the risk to earn more money,” says Wu Lian, as make-up artists work to replace his wig, which was dislodged during filming. Wu says he receives between 200 yuan (HK$225) and 400 yuan a day, which is well above the 70-yuan base rate for extras.

Yao Shan, who has a part in a series called The Hypnotised Hypnotist, has earned a reputation as a body double for actresses in horse-riding scenes. The young woman is a member of the Yao ethnic minority, who originate from the forests of southern Guangxi province.

“I used to work in an itinerant circus that travelled between Inner Mongolia and Tibet but, in 2014, I came to Hengdian and decided to stay to save some money,” Yao says.

The Hypnotised Hypnotist is set during the Republic of China era (1912-1949), and although she doesn’t ride a horse in the show, Yao does take part in a knife fight. The blades used, while unsharpened, are made of metal.

As if to illustrate the risks involved, as Yao speaks, a fellow actress withdraws from the set in tears after having sustained an injury.

Hengdian is not an easy place to carve out a career as an actor, but that does not deter a never-ending stream of youngsters drawn by the glamour of the film industry.

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“I guess it’s like Hollywood – thousands arrive, maybe two succeed,” says Zhang Yiguo, an actor who runs one of the many talent agencies that have sprung up in Hengdian. The walls of his small office are covered with casting photographs.

“Every day, a hundred enthusiastic aspiring actors come in. But also dozens of people throw in the towel and leave,” he says. “Most can only aspire to survive as an extra. It is very difficult to stand out among hundreds of people, so getting a scene with a sentence or two is already an achievement. There are hardly any examples of success beyond that.

“In the Chinese film industry, only those who fulfil certain conditions are successful,” Zhang says. “They need to have contacts in the industry, be really handsome or so ugly that nobody can replace them, speak Mandarin perfectly – something many young people from the provinces fail to achieve – and be very patient.”

Mi Wei fulfils onlythe last of these requirements but, speaking at Zhang’s agency, he remains optimistic.

“I have studied acting, I have polished my Mandarin and in a few years I have achieved small roles with dialogue,” he says. “It’s difficult, but there are more and more productions, the budgets have increased and opportunities have improved.”

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The numbers bear him out. Last year, the mainland box office took a record 45.7 billion yuan. The figure is no longer growing at the hectic pace of 2015, when receipts shot up by 48.7 per cent, but still it represents a 3.7 per cent year-on-year increase. If growth continues at the same pace, the mainland will be the largest film market in the world by 2019. Last year, it surpassed the United States for number of cinema screens, with 40,917 versus 40,759. Meanwhile, the State Administration of Press, Publica­tion, Radio, Film and Television (SAPPRFT) estimates that, in 2016, television series earned in excess of 25 billion yuan, representing annual growth of 17 per cent.

It’s this wave of growth that Jadie Lynn hopes to ride in Hengdian. A winner of the popular CCTV 6 Chinese-Korean modelling contest, From Beijing to Seoul, she is signed to Jackie Chan’s talent agency and already has a starring film role under her belt. Now she is shooting scenes for TV series The Punisherin a replica Victorian building.

She doesn’t waste a moment. A fellow actress is having trouble with her lines and director Li Yonghui is running out of patience. Under the endless dawn cast by studio lights, camera and sound operators doze in corners while Lynn studies.

“If I want to make a qualitative leap in my career, I have to learn new things. I have been improving my acting skills in America and now I’m training in martial arts and dance,” she says. It’s the first time she has shot in Hengdian but she’s sure
it will not be the last. “Many actors even buy apartments here because they spend long spells in the town. It is a very exciting moment of enormous activity and I want to take advantage of the Chinese market boom. However, compared with South Korea or the US, there is still a long way to go for our audiovisual sector.”

That is a view shared by others.

“There are many productions but their technical quality is not always good and some lack an original and attractive script,” says He Xiaojian, who provides liaison services between tech­nical teams and Hengdian World Studios.

“The problem also lies in the limitations imposed by censorship,” says Zhang Bingjian, a film­maker and the writer of North by Northeast, a movie that required extensive editing to please the censors. “There are many topics and perspectives that are vetoed. So it is difficult to be original and incisive, because the fear of a negative reaction kills creativity.”

Such headaches are minimised in Hengdian, claims Zeng.

“In addition to the fact that filming here is free – revenues are obtained through taxes generated by economic activities – we have a self-managed censorship bureau approved by SAPPRFT to grant exhibition licences. That greatly simplifies the paperwork for film­makers and reduces bureaucracy.”

The truth, though, is that few of the stories told in Hengdian are sensitive ones. Most are romantic soap operas, affable comedies or wartime epics that extol the virtues of the Communist Party.

“Thus, Chinese movies are increasingly disconnected from an audience that no longer wants propaganda and demands a deeper view of the world,” says Zhang.

Indeed,last year, few Chinese films achieved more than seven points out of 10 on the Douban website, which draws millions of users who rate and discuss new releases. Zhang Yimou’s recent fantasy film The Great Wall, for instance, barely gets a pass mark of five points and has been subject to a barrage of criticism.

Of course, viewers have limited choice, with Beijing cap­ping the number of non-Chinese productions released each year at just 34. Nevertheless, these account for 40 per cent of industry revenues. If that were not humiliating enough for local filmmakers, a report last year by accountancy firm Deloitte estimated that about 70 per cent of Chinese films are never com­mercially screened, which is “a huge waste of resources and a great threat to investors”.

Perhaps for this reason, the shooting of The Lonely Hero in the Desertbegins with a Buddhist ceremony to ward off evil spirits and help ensure the success of the project.

It is 8am and director Mai Tian is the first to light incense bars in front of a promotional poster for the film and four plates of fruit offerings. The cast and crew follow suit and the ceremony concludes with a solemn bow. Just a few metres away is the much sought-after film set: a palace.

“There are times when up to 12 teams are waiting to use a set,” Mai says.

The Lonely Hero in the Desert calls for an array of costumes and tools that evoke theMing dynasty (1368-1644). Zhou Tianyu is the man charged with ensuring the historical authenticity of the production. He has spent several days rummaging through the aisles of a giant warehouse in which China’s 5,000-year history is laid out in a jumble of emperors’ golden thrones, gigantic paintings of Chiang Kai-shek and Mao, Japanese artillery pieces and former Kuomintang vehicles. Zhou and his assistant focus their attention on dozens of shelves crammed with cups, teapots, vases, lanterns and myriad items impossible for the untrained eye to identify.

“We are now looking for fuchen, a kind of feather duster that eunuchs and concubines used to shoo flies away with; and a set of tablets with which judges administered justice,” says Zhou. “It is not easy to find them, because everything here is mixed and there is no inventory.”

In another crowded room, a busy Li Xiaodong is preparing the costumes.

“There are almost 1,000 outfits that have been designed in Beijing and produced in Hengdian,” he says. “Here we have a huge auxiliary industry for the audiovisual sector. Artisans make anything from old-looking furniture to clothes. They have to be perfectly classified and numbered so that there are no problems when wearing them. We will spend most of the night getting them ready.”

This, it turns out, is no exaggeration and come midnight there is still much to be done.

The following morning, Jin Zhengxuan, who plays the head eunuch in the film, requires half an hour to don his costume for the first scene. There is no glamour here; Jin dresses in plain view, in the trailer of a truck that Li has filled with costumes. He uses the camera on his mobile phone to help the make-up artist assess the progress of the hairstyle she is working on; no one can find a hand mirror. It’s the beginning of a taxing day for Jin and the many extras on set, during which there will barely be time to enjoy a lunchbox of rice, vegetables and – if they are lucky – a piece of chicken.

In Hengdian, the action never stops. The lights are always on and the cameras ever rolling as the town continues to expand. A replica of Beijing’s Summer Palace is nearing completion, and Zeng, who is also spokesman for Hengdian World Studios, talks of plans to add an old Shanghai street and a small European city to the collection of sets. He knows that time is of the essence; Dalian Wanda’s Qingdao Oriental Movie Metropolis is on the rise.

“We hope to be able to cooperate in the future, although it is clear that for now it will be a competition,” Zeng says. “In any case, the market is big enough for everyone to find their place.”