ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
Imagine a film studio the size of Paramount and Universal combined. Well, that would be Hengdian, or Chinawood as it's called. It was once a farming village in rural China. Now, they build entire film set cities to order.
NPR's Louisa Lim was there.
LOUISA LIM: I'm standing in the Forbidden City, home to China's emperors. To my back, there are only mountains. In front of me, there's a deserted courtyard. It's incredibly peaceful, and I feel like I have the entire complex to myself. This may not sound like the real thing, which is overrun by tourists and set in the middle of bustling Beijing, and that's because it isn't the real thing. I'm in a life-size replica of the Forbidden City built as a film set. And this is in the world's largest film studio.
Mr. ALEX CHEN(ph) (Director): The clients wants a huge locations, temples, the princes and the kings - luxury life, yeah.
LIM: Alex Chen is preparing to shoot an ad for instant noodles here as his crew lugs equipment around. He says facilities are good, even if the site, some 200 miles from Shanghai, is slightly remote.
Mr. CHEN: It's great, but it tooks a lot of transportation because, basically, the crew men - we ship him from Guangzhou and Shanghai, and the costume - we ship them from Beijing. A lot of work.
LIM: But you couldn't shoot an instant noodle commercial in the real Forbidden City, right?
Mr. CHEN: Of course not. Not even Coke.
LIM: And that's one of Hengdian's selling points. In just 10 years, it's transformed itself form a poverty-stricken farming village to a collection of replica palaces, temples, and historical streets. Open to film crews, often for free. Some of China's most successful films were made here, including "Hero" and "The Promise." And the roll call of international movies shot here is soon to include the "Mummy 3."
Liu Rongdong(ph) from the Hengdian group explains its advantages.
Mr. LIU RONGDONG (Employee; Hengdian): (Through translator) We can make dreams come true for all filmmakers. If you want the White House, we'll build you the White House. That's what Hengdian is proud of. It's what China is proud of.
LIM: Now I'm on the set of a Hong Kong TV show, and it's being filmed from the water town set. You can hear the cicadas chirping in the background, and there's a beautiful green canal with willow trees just across the way.
Observers like Charlie Moretti say there's a huge difference between the way that Chinese TV series are shot here as opposed to big international films.
Mr. CHARLIE MURPHY (Director): It is just massively quicker. You know, they work - they'd take (unintelligible) at night. Sometimes they hire two directors. They have two teams shooting in parallel. They have these massive crews, these massive sets which have built before and instantaneously almost. So it's just - the scale is different. It's just crazy.
Unidentified Woman: Lights, action.
LIM: Charlie Moretti has just made a documentary about Hengdian. During shooting, he witnessed some very low-tech moments.
Mr. MORETTI: You have these masses sort of river town and they were shooting at night. And they wanted some ripples. You know, some reflection of light shining on the water. And they just had a guy who, for literally four hours, has his hand in the water and just made ripples, and that's it.
LIM: The low cost of labor makes that possible and allows filmmakers to employ crowds of extras. Da Xi(ph) Long Shang(ph) are sweating in their robes as they wait to be called. They both have college educations, but they're working as extras for $2.50 a day.
Mr. LONG SHANG (Film Extra): (Chinese Spoken)
LIM: Every extra here has gone hungry at some time, Long Shang says.
Ms. DA XI (Film Extra): (Chinese Spoken)
LIM: And sometimes we shoot for almost 20 hours a day, says Da Xi.
Yet the Hengdian Studios made around $50 million last year. Nearly 90 percent of that was from the three million tourists, most of them Chinese. In China -where old buildings are torn down in the flicker of an eyelid - many visitors say they haven't come for the movie glamour, but to learn about their country's past from the fake buildings.
Ms. CHIANG(ph) (Tourist): (Chinese Spoken)
LIM: This feels like the real Forbidden City to us, says Mrs. Chiang.
Mr. YANG(ph) (Tourist): (Chinese Spoken)
LIM: The main thing is to see history, says Mr. Yang.
(Soundbite of music)
LIM: The tourists settled down to watch live reenactments of film scenes in the replica buildings. In many ways, Hengdian encapsulates modern China in its breathtaking scale, the amazing feat of its development and its armies of low-cost labor. It's transformed life in the surrounding area, allowing subsistence farmers to run shops, restaurants and hotels.
Hengdian is symbolic, too, for its ambition. One day, deputy manager Liu says confidently, all these film sets will be historical treasures. And watching the pleasure the tourists take in the empty shells of these replica buildings, that doesn't seem so farfetched.
Louisa Lim, NPR News.
SIEGEL: You can compare photos of the real Forbidden City and the set of Hengdian at our Web site, npr.org. Tomorrow, Louisa Lim reports on a real big-budget Chinawood film. Jackie Chan and Jet Li fans, stay tuned.