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Film Review: China Love (China) 2018

Reuben Raj

China Love, a film by Olivia Martin-McGuire, is one of the documentaries featured at the 2019 Doc Edge Documentary Film Festival in New Zealand.

Martin-McGuire is a photographer presently living in Shanghai who was drawn to the ‘dream-like’ pre-wedding photography shoots that were regularly held in various parts of the Chinese megacity.

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Over the past forty years, marriages in China have taken on a completely new meaning from a time when the union of man and wife were arranged by matchmakers and standard wedding gifts included Selected Works of Mao Zedong.

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In the documentary, Martin-McGuire aims to understand the new ‘fairy-tale’ wonderland of China by speaking (with the aid of a translator) to couples from the past and present as well as prominent figures in the billion dollar Chinese wedding photography industry.

Pei Pei & Xue Zhong speak about an older China where they rode a bicycle from 12 kms in winter to take an ‘approved’ wedding photograph in 1968 when western ‘capitalist’ influences were punishable by death. Another senior couple Neng Fang & Hui Juan from Xujiahui, Shanghai share their dream to put the country’s progress as the priority rather than themselves.

The present-day relationship between Li & Jun Bo from Anhui, China retain some of the older Chinese traditions. Actual kissing is no longer considered taboo but inappropriate. Their wedding proposal was negotiated by text message and the time of the wedding was decided by matchmakers. In contrast, Jenny from China recently got engaged with David, a westerner from abroad. The concept of a mixed marriage is now common in China and the pre-wedding photoshoot in still a crucial part of such a union.

Modern bride-to-be Viona explains how marriage is important for the parents. The community puts pressure on a mother, especially those with unmarried daughters. If the daughter ‘misbehaves’ for not getting married, the mother is, even today, reprimanded by society.

Lastly, Martin-McGuire chats with the ‘godfather’ of the China wedding photography industry, Allen Shi, CEO of the Jianhao Group. Allen Shi is a poster child for the classic rags-to-riches story and proudly admits himself to be ‘young and powerful’. With headquarters in Shanghai, the annual turnover for the Jiahao Group is well over $1.5 billion USD with 2,000 couples who pass through their studios every day.

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As a photographer myself, the film certainly lured me to the lucrative commercial wedding photography in the Chinese market. But, it was even more fascinating to see and understand how the psyche of a country has drastically changed in such a short time about marriage and what it represents.

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The documentary remains unbiased while revealing the excesses a couple in modern-day China is willing to spend or sacrifice (depending on how you look at it) to be part of a ‘fantasy’. Pre-wedding photos in a Chinese society become the symbol for a dream life of wealth and luxury. To live and be part of this dream, even if it is for a fleeting moment, enough for a camera to capture what could have been an extravagant and luxurious life turns a shared illusion into a passing reality.

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Martin-McGuire shows the power of photography and how the camera is helping ‘a nation build new memories’. But, does the illusion come with a price by setting unachievable expectations and goals for a young husband and wife? Will the pre-wedding photographs eventually represent failure and what could have been instead of what is?

Only time will tell.

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Enjoy this film at the Doc Edge Documentary Film Festival, Auckland from 30 May to 9 June 2019 or Wellington, from 13 June to 23 June.

Buy tickets here.

Written By: Reuben Raj Reuben is a film and digital photographer who is driven by music in his head. Often seen lurking behind a camera inside the pit of a concert, Reuben harbours intimate feelings for vinyl records. He is also the founder and chief editor of Radio 13.

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