They are the wedding pictures before the wedding pictures. In China, “pre-wedding photos” are often so elaborate and ostentatious, they must be compensating for something—as indeed they are. The lingering horror of the Cultural Revolution, the social disruption caused by the One Child Policy, rigid gender roles, and the crushing demands of filial piety—take your pick, because they all apply. Olivia Martin McGuire finds a unique window into the Chinese national soul in China Love (trailer here), which screens during this year’s DOC NYC.
Allen Shi is the Bill Gates of pre-wedding photography. His company can realize just about any fantasy for the hundreds of thousands of fabulously wealthy couples that still lack passports and must therefore rely the Jiahao Group to create the illusion of Paris by night. He has already expanded throughout Asia and has his sights set on the American market next.
Initially, China Love starts out as an exercise in gawking at nouveau riche excess, but it soon evolves into something deeper and more significant. McGuire quickly positions the pre-wed-phenom as a pendulum swing back from the austerity of the Cultural Revolution, when marriages were often arranged by cadres and your only photo was a black and white snapshot, barely bigger than a passport photo that often doubled as the marriage certificate.
McGuire also thoroughly explores the pressures placed on a single, loan son to continue the family legacy during the period in which the full impact of the One Child Policy is still being felt. We also see emotions roiled up when a bride is expected to essentially switch her primary familial loyalties to the in-laws. In this context, if they want to take pictures walking on a fake moon drinking Dom Perignon, why begrudge them?
Frankly, it is amazing how deeply McGuire delves into the Chinese psyche. There are also some surprisingly poignant moments, particularly the scenes of older couples who survived the Cultural Revolution, who are finally able to get decked out and take some proper wedding photos (or rather post-pre-wedding photos), thanks to a new non-profit. Yet, McGuire manages to have her documentary cake and eat it too, because there is still plenty gaudy spectacle to gape at.
China Love had the questionable fortune to come along at the perfect time for every group-thinking critic to compare it to Crazy Rich Asians, but there is so much more to McGuire’s film than that. It is actually quite engrossing to watch McGuire take this eccentric looking industry and trace its roots back to some very serious social and historical causes. This is simply terrific filmmaking. Very highly recommended, China Love screens this Friday (11/9), as part of this year’s DOC NYC.