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Zhenbeibu China West Film Studio – Yinchuan, China

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It may look like a crumbling desert fort, but for the Chinese movie industry Zhenbeibu film studio is like Hollywood, Universal Studios and Monument Valley all rolled into one.

Battle scene on the bridge

Battle scene on the bridge

Originally the strategically important location of two forts at the foot of Helan Mountain, these were destroyed by a massive earthquake. Reknowned Chinese writer Zhang Xianliang took over the site and Zhenbeibu is now one of the three largest film studios in China, and the most famous in Western China.

The location for dozens of blockbuster Chinese films since 1992, these studios are now the hub of desert based Chinese movies. These movies often feature warriors on horseback, with epic stories frequently sharing similar themes to the bleaker American cowboy movies. The dusty ruins and barren landscapes enhance the feelings of desolation so popular in this type of Chinese film.

Recreated streets, markets and buildings have replaced the innards of the two forts. With the help of a little set dressing and costumed actors, these can replicate many periods of Chinese history.

Village Scene

A village set

Time Magazine’s 2008 profile of Zhang Yimou, by Steven Spielberg

Zhang Yimou (or Johnny Mo to those that won’t try to pronounce his name) chose Zhenbeibu as the location for his critically successful first film ‘Red Sorghum’. Red Sorghum is a type of wine, and it’s still possible to walk around the distillery set (and of course, buy the liquor). Zhang Yimou went on to direct many popular films and was the director of the spectacular opening ceremony of the Beijing 2008 Olympics.

Some of the other attractions include dressing up as your favourite character, posing in movie sets and even starring in short video clips. One stag party were keen to pose in front of a particular building, as was their driver, until she learnt she was posing in front of a brothel, backed by 12 leering men.

Other popular movies shot here are the ‘Chinese Odyssey’ series, directed by Stephen Chow who later created ‘Shaolin Soccer’ and the internationally successful ‘Kung Fu Hustle’. Despite not having a detailed knowledge of the Chinese movie industry, I’m keen on films in general so wandering round behind the scenes on a movie shoot was great fun.

Covering the fantasy film genre, there are two cave sets – the horror cave and the mystery cave. Of these, the horror cave seemed the most popular with visitors. It contained monster costumes from a number of scary films, none of which I’ve seen. I was more entertained by the mystery cave and it’s very cheap props such as the treasure chest filled with priceless gold foil sweet wrappers.

Line of bottoms

Inexplicably a line of bare bums welcomes you to the war film area

The modern war film props were more recognisable, and there were a number of 20th century motorbikes and cars, presumably from films about the 1911 uprising. Here there was also the opportunity to play Laser Quest on an old fortress film set, which looked great fun, but needed a lot more people.

Cat Target

Cat Target - Nice grouping between the eyes!

In the larger second fort, there is also the opportunity to have a go with a variety of ancient weapons. I now know that I’m inept with crossbows, but that could have been because the targets were photos of fluffy kittens. The bow and arrow range used trolls and demons as targets, and I surprised the stallholder by being quite decent (and neglected to mention a couple of years practicing archery at school).

The Zhenbeibu China West Film Studio is about 35km from Yinchaun. There’s a bus route, but it’s more convienient to hire a taxi to take you out there. They’ll wait 3-4 hours, which is enough time for you to visit everything.

Still no dragons:

Chinese Dragon

Finally, I find something in China that I'll accept being told it looks like a dragon, and it's labelled a Rhinoceros...

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Author

Since leaving London in 2006 I’ve travelled, worked, volunteered and lived in over 90 countries. Highlights so far would be driving along the Silk Road from Beijing to Istanbul, a complete circuit of South America and volunteering with Habitat for Humanity in Costa Rica. I’m currently back in Beijing, as a base to visit more of Asia and attempt to learn Mandarin.

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