China has a rich history going back thousands of years, its heritage serves to inspire and drive modernity... but you know what else? China looks great on film. It's one huge country with desert, mountains, rivers, huge cities, long walls and a roll-call of other cool things. Plus, with a population of more than one billion, movies are big business and more and more Hollywood outfits head there to make films. If you're visiting China as a movie buff, here's a quick primer on what to look out for and where it was shot.
Beijing captured the world's attention when it hosted the Olympics in 2008. The event's iconic sites were showcased in the Will and Jada Smith–produced Karate Kid remake (shot entirely in China). Their son, Jaden Smith, was filmed against the famous Bird's Nest and there were cutaways to the then-new CCTV building as well. Several scenes were also shot at the Beijing Shaolin Wushu School – remember the sequence with several hundred students doing their morning training routine?
Of course, the city's crowning glory is the Forbidden Palace. True to its name, no other film since Bernado Bertolucci's epic The Last Emperor (shot in 1987) has been allowed to shoot inside this grand compound. Yet the Karate Kid managed to pack in a wildly unrealistic sequence where a bunch of school kids walked through the Tiananmen Doors into an empty palace. Real-life visitors today will generally have to battle with thousands of other tourists!
'Gate of Heavenly Peace' by Dennis Jarvis. Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike licence
The Great Wall of China
No, you can't see the Wall from space, but you can visit the Mutianyu section where Jackie Chan taught the Karate Kid some moves. Robert Downey Jr will also be seen flying over sections of the Great Wall in a tin suit in Iron Man 3. Also in the pipeline, Edward Zwick (of The Last Samurai fame) will be directing The Great Wall, a film about the origins and construction of this iconic structure. So, pay a pilgrimage to the various remaining sections, they're all within day-trip striking distance from Beijing.
Speaking of Iron Man 3, filming will be set in various as-yet-undisclosed parts of the city. We're going out on a limb to suggest that you visit the Bund, the lovely French Concession and the gleaming skyscrapers in Pudong (including the 492m-high Shanghai World Financial Centre) where we're guessing that scenes from the movie will be shot.
'Yangshuo' by Bernt Rostad. Creative Commons Attribution licence
This picturesque 900-year-old village was notably the set for The Painted Veil, a tragi-drama starring Edward Norton and Naomi Watts. Wander on cobblestone paths past stone houses and along the stream to recreate scenes from the film (minus the cholera). Since you're in the Guangxi province, don't forget to visit Yangshuo where you'll find the gorgeous karst-mountain backdrop that set the bucolic tone of the film.
The perfectly preserved Unesco-heritage-listed villages of Xidi and Hongcun were the subject of several scenes in Ang Lee's Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. The villages, with their moody cobblestoned streets, aged white-walled houses and bodies of water instantly set the mood for classic martial arts action. Don't forget to hike through the rustling bamboo forest, Mukeng Zhuhai, where the breathtaking sword-fighting scenes from the movie were shot. For Chinese-film buffs, famed director Zhang Yimou filmed Judou in the less-visited village of Nanping. In all these places, stills from the movies have been put up to help jog your memory.
'Zhangjiajie cable car' by John Philip. Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike licence
Remember Avatar? James Cameron's epic featuring blue-skinned aliens may have been set on a fictional world of Pandora but its landscape wasn't entirely fictional. Pandora's floating mist-wreathed mountains were based on similar formations in the Hunan's Wulingyuan scenic area. The popularity of the film in China (top-grossing film ever!) probably had something to do with the government's decision to rename the Southern Sky Column as the Avatar Hallelujah Mountain.
Push, a 2009 thriller starring Chris Evans, Djimon Hounsou and Dakota Fanning might have been forgettable, but the bustling Mongkok and Hong Kong city streets and buildings were used to great visual effect. The manic energy of the city is best experienced at street level as you push through the throngs in neon-lit Mongkok in search of your next dim sum fix. The brilliant Hong Kong sequence (filmed in IMAX too) of Christopher Nolan's Dark Knight Returns saw Batman decking baddies in the International Finance Centre, the second tallest building in the city. You can check out the cityscape (sans baddies) from the top of the Peak.
Whether you're star-spotting, sightseeing or taking a gourmet tour, don't forget to pack Lonely Planet's China guide book.