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Dreams and DSLRs: Olivia Martin-McGuire’s China Love

Olivia Martin-McGuire’s documentary explores modern China through the lens of its pre-wedding photography industry.

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This piece is from our continuing coverage of Sydney Film Festival over the next month. Check out the rest of the content here

Shanghai: a thriving and dynamic city with an inescapable momentum unlike anywhere else in the world; whose rapid pace of change threatens to outstrip its complex past. It’s this dynamism that drew Olivia Martin-McGuire, an Australian-born photographer and filmmaker, to permanently relocate to the city. Her documentary China Love, set in and around Shanghai, explores how “the future is living together with the past” in modern China through a look at China’s burgeoning wedding industry. This industry – now worth over 80 billion dollars – is deeply emblematic of the cultural change, and it’s through this lens that Martin-McGuire uncovers some of the challenges facing modern Chinese society.

The rapid social and economic growth experienced by China in the last four decades has been incredible. the wealth that has come from China’s unprecedented boom has led to a market for goods and services alien to previous generations. Weddings have always been an important ritual in Chinese culture. Where Pin the West the focus is on capturing the wedding day itself, in China, pre-wedding photography is king, and something that has become virtually compulsory for Chinese couples. It’s big business, too – couples spend anywhere between $300-$400,000 on photo shoots, some even travelling overseas to destinations such as Santorini, Paris or Sydney to get the perfect shot. Thousands of pre-wedding photography studios exist throughout China, with elaborate sets and armies of makeup artists at their disposal in order to realise their clients’ dreams. One surreal sequence in China Love shows a couple posing for photos underwater in a studio tank built expressly for this kind of client demand. Chinese pre-wedding photography is lavish and dream-like, “a time for creative self-expression”, Martin-Maguire explains. She characterises pre-wedding photos as a potent expression of freedom and individuality in a culture that traditionally has prioritised the collective.

Martin-Maguire explains that weddings were very different during the Cultural Revolution – still recent history for many. Romantic love was seen as a capitalist concept and weddings were pragmatic couplings arranged by families or the state. Weddings were typically simple and photography functioned mainly as proof of a marriage. She describes a deep intergenerational disconnect between older Chinese and the ‘happy generation’ who desire elaborate pre-wedding photos. “The older generation don’t want to hear it,” she says of modern pre-wedding photography. In China Love, interviews with newlyweds are sharply contrasted with interviews from older couples who’ve lived through the Cultural Revolution. It’s difficult to compare the modern couples’ elaborate pre-wedding shoots with the history of their forebears, who “never had the [same] chance to be in the spotlight of their own life”, Martin-Maguire says.

A recurring theme in China Love is how China’s wealth has cultivated individualism at the expense of traditional communitarianism – complicated by the interplay between China’s communist history and the global, capitalist world economy. Chinese society previously punished self-expression – frivolous spending would lead to public humiliation and potentially even punishment. Now, Martin-Maguire says, there’s a “desperation for things that were denied.” It’s extraordinary to comprehend how much has changed in China in just forty years. Indeed, the scale of the pre-wedding photography industry depicted in China Love truly boggles. Much of the documentary shows Martin-Maguire touring vast photography studios following Allen Shi, the CEO of the Jiahao Group, the world’s largest wedding photography business. Allen’s studios are veritable dream factories for his clients, serving thousands of couples every day.

Allen, a self-made millionaire, epitomises China’s new wealth, and his aspirations to grow in overseas markets mirrors his nation’s economic drive. However the scale of his business underpins a reality – whilst there exist new opportunities for self-expression in China, Martin-Maguire observes that “the vast majority of customers are [in fact] looking for uniformity… Almost like a uniform they’re putting on.” In many ways, the modern Chinese wedding ritual is not only a celebration of a couple’s love but of the growing liberty and prosperity achievable in modern China. Yet there’s still constraints; there’s self-expression but it occurs within a particular framework. The central leitmotif in China Love is the idea of dreaming – but Martin-Maguire believes the Chinese Dream isn’t quite the same as the American Dream. Western, capitalist values of individual liberty and freedom of expression erode the sense of collective responsibility and family values inherent to Chinese culture. But Martin-Maguire’s expat perspective is that the Chinese sense of the collective is largely unchanged and unique – “something they’ll hold onto”. Even the newfound conceptions of changes to liberty are tenuous; Martin-Maguire quotes a Chinese author, saying “people in China feel like they have so much more freedom now because the cage has widened, but there’s still a cage… Still a control, over everyone.”