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Shooting Feature Films in China, Part 1

Updated: Jun 18, 2019

Changes in China Censorship... Zombies Are All the Rage! Last Monday evening we were invited to an early screening of a feature film we shot in Guangzhou in September 2017. It was an indie film written and directed by Liang Yuliang (梁煜良), called "Remnants of the Island Demons", a movie about an outbreak of a zombie virus at a Chinese tourist destination island.

While this was the film's investors' first time to screen their zombie movie, the Chinese film industry as a whole was also beginning to see some things for the first time as well.

Some of these changes are what opened up the possibility of films like this one getting produced in the first place.

redraven monitor zombie movie
From behind the camera... A victim in "Remnants of the Island Demons" is about to be injected with the zombie virus.

For some context, let's rewind a couple of years...

In 2016 Korean director Yeon Sang-ho released his debut feature film, a zombie thriller titled "Train to Busan". In the film a man and his daughter on a high-speed train from Seoul to Busan find themselves in the middle of the zombie apocalypse.

"Train to Busan" became the highest-grossing Korean movie in Malaysia, Hong Kong and Singapore. More than 11 million lined up to see it in theaters outside of South Korea. Rotten Tomatoes gave it a score of 95%.

Chinese audiences typically eat up Korean entertainment, watching K-dramas and listening to K-pop through the various authorized and unauthorized online platforms.

But "Train to Busan" did not see a theatrical release in mainland China due to Communist party censorship on content “promoting cults or superstition” -- not to mention the amount of violence and blood-spattering necessary for a good zombie movie. China has no movie rating system, so theoretically any film shown in theaters should be "G" rated (suitable for all audiences).

Nonetheless film enthusiasts in China found their ways of watching "Train to Busan" online, and its popularity went through the roof. The various online channels for movies not distributed in China had plenty of traffic from "Train to Busan" downloads.

Then in 2017 the Chinese censors suddenly started showing some change in their approach to things undead. The T-virus zombies of "Resident Evil: The Final Chapter" released in Chinese theaters February 2017, bringing in CN¥1 billion ($145 million) in three days.

In May 2017 Disney brought the world premiere of a Hollywood movie to China for the first time with "Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales". Shanghai Disneyland premiered the film, which featured a ghost ship, a ghost crew, and ghost Captain Salazar (Javier Bardem).

Charles Clover and Sherry Fei Ju explain the censorship adjustments in more detail in this Financial Times article.

With this shift toward a tolerance of zombies coming off the success of "Train to Busan," our friend director/writer Liang Yuliang decided to try his hand at producing his own zombie movie, but this one would be made in China for Chinese audiences.

On this shoot Mike 麦永曦 was the DP and A-camera operator, and I served as B-camera operator. We shot the entire film in 10 days, all in one studio with multiple sets. The majority of the movie took place in a hotel lobby, which was the biggest set in the studio. The other sets were various hotel rooms, an office, and lots and lots of hotel hallways (for zombies to chase the main characters through, of course).

By far our biggest challenge on this movie was the studio itself. On our first location scout we discovered that this movie was the inaugural feature film for the studio. Before its recent renovation the building was a warehouse. At first we were excited to be working in a brand new studio. Unfortunately what it really meant was that the kinks had not been worked out yet, and this movie would show them all.

The main issue we discovered? The building came with air conditioning and big HMI lights, but not enough electricity to run both at the same time. Guangzhou in September is HOT. And muggy. When you're shooting a movie on a 10-day schedule, the lights are going to take priority over the A/C. So in 95ºF heat, we turned off the air conditioning, and left on about 12kW worth of hot lights (give or take), and nearly sweated to death 14 to 18 hours a day for more than a week.

The other fun part was the fake blood. In the USA on movie sets the fake blood is typically made from a corn syrup base with red coloring and water added. The result is that the whole set smells like high-fructose corn syrup if it's a really violent scene. In China I've found that fake blood is made from a vinegar-based liquid, and almost smells like a nasty version of a Chinese hot sauce that's common in a cabbage dish here called 手撕包菜 (shredded stir-fried cabbage). Given the mental connection of flailing zombies oozing this smelly vinegar fake blood from their mouths, it was a long time before I was able to stomach shredded cabbage at our favorite restaurant.

Fake blood gets spewed all over my lens when character Jiu Ge gets infected with the virus.

As of this week's blog posting, "Remnants of the Island Demons" is still undergoing some audio post-production. The film's investors have not secured a distribution deal yet, and for now the plan seems to be to generate an independent following on (one of many Netflix-type entertainment platforms in China).

We'll be sure to post an update after the film is available to watch online!


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