Photos: Olivia Martin-McGuire
Getting married in China comes with some oddities. One of the special aspects of a Chinese wedding is that the administrative marriage at the registry office, the taking of wedding photos and the wedding party do not occur on the same day and are often months apart. That wedding photo shoot, which is usually made months before the wedding, is also very different from what we are used to in the west. Australian photographer and filmmaker Olivia Martin-McGuire takes us into the world of Chinese wedding photography in her documentary China Love.
Anyone who has spent some time in China knows that in beautiful places in the cities, such as parks and tourist attractions, you regularly encounter couples are being photographed in their wedding attire by a professional crew. Other couples book a session at a professional studio where they have themselves photographed in a full day program against a multitude of backdrops, as if they were in a European palace, a church or a flower garden. New couples with a bit more budget fly to foreign places for more authenticity. During my recent vacation in Iceland, I came across such a couple with their personal photographer and assistant at one of the many photogenic waterfalls. But Chinese who really money to splurge can just as easily fly to Antarctica for some cool shots (pun intended).
China Love follows several couples, including Viona and Will. Viona is a typical Chinese young lady who is under enormous pressure from her mother to get married and have children, so she won’t be left behind as a leftover woman (link in Dutch). Viona’s mother explains to the camera that the wedding shoots are in line with the romantic dream of the young generation. Young people who dream of traveling far, but for lack of money have themselves photographed against backdrops in a studio. When choosing the photos, Viona gets her way with Will in a typical Chinese way. Pouting and insisting like a little kid that she doesn’t like one photo but does like the other, until Will agrees.
Rags to riches
For a wedding shoot, a Chinese couple spends somewhere between $300 and $400,000 dollars. It is therefore not surprising that, according to the film, the industry for wedding products and services in China is $80 billion. Other sources even claim that the market has already passed the $200 billion mark in 2017.
Besides several bridal couples, Olivia also follows the showy Allen Shi (Shi Jihao), the CEO of a company operating wedding photography studios. Allen has worked his way out of poverty, entirely in Chinese ‘rags to riches’ fashion, to become the owner of a multinational company with 2,000 customers every day, each paying about $1,500 for a photo shoot.
As befits a good Chinese manager, he rules with an iron hand. If customers have complaints about their shoots, make-up specialists, photographers and other staff pay a fine in front of their colleagues. This loss of face turns out to be an excellent incentive for better performance. However, if you’re a top performer, he might reward you with one of the cars he gives away every year. Shi clearly enjoys his power and wealth… as he does the foreigner who supports him as an assistant and whom he has clearly managed to bind with promises of mountains of money.
China Love could have been a very annoying documentary about consumerism of the rich (upper) middle class and the entrepreneurs who have become rich servicing their privileged fellow countrymen. Fortunately, the film offers much more than that. I personally was delighted with the scenes about Li and Jun Bo from the poorer province of Anhui. The fledgling pair is matched by the local matchmaker. It is fascinating to see how everything is still done in a very traditional way in their hometown. It is also touching to see how Li’s father has a hard time saying goodbye to his daughter, who will become part of her husband’s family after the wedding. It is wonderful how the makers of the film show this contrast with families from the big city (Shanghai).
The contrast with the older generations is also beautifully portrayed. For example, we meet Pei and Xue Zhong from Shanghai, who got married in 1968. They say that when they got married, during the Cultural Revolution, lavish wedding photography would have been completely impossible. No, they only had one photo together, mostly as proof of their marriage. There was no romance back then. Another elderly couple, Neng Fang and Hui Juan, confirm this. In the past you didn’t show how you felt about the other person. You were like a thermos: ‘hot inside, cold outside’. But times have changed and a Chinese charity, Frame the Vow, now gives these elderly people the opportunity to shoot wedding photos after so many years of marriage. It delivers some of the most moving yet funny moments in the film.
You might think that a 1.5-hour documentary about wedding photography would quickly get boring, but nothing could be further from the truth with China Love. Although the shoots are the common thread, the film deals with getting married in China in a much broader way. Various topics are covered. For example, with Li and Jun Bo we see many of the traditional rituals and customs surrounding marriage. We see the wedding market in Shanghai’s People’s Park. And with Viona we experience the enormous pressure from parents and society that Chinese young people must contend with. She eventually flees to Australia with her husband, to escape her mother’s constant meddling, but fate has it that Will takes a new job in Shanghai and Viona must return. Almost thirty years old and ‘still’ not pregnant, a year after her marriage…
The film does not use voiceovers; the images tell the story. Fortunately, texts are regularly used to provide brief background information or to place scenes in the right context, something which is sometimes lacking in these kinds of documentaries. All in all, China Love is a fascinating film that gives a nice insight into Chinese marriages, but also shows contrasts between past and present and poor and rich. In doing so, the film presents a realistic picture of multi-faceted China.
Watch the trailer for the film below.
I haven’t mentioned one couple yet. David and Jenny are a ‘mixed couple’, just like my wife and I, and therefore particularly interesting to me. They don’t feature heavily in the film, but it is recognizable to me to see how uneasy David feels about the whole idea of these wedding photo shoots. His wife-to-be wants to take underwater photos. Like David, we also had a wedding shoot done and I was not at ease either. But that’s a story for another day…
Please visit the film’s website to see on which streaming services China Love can be watched.