The latest wedding fad people are wasting fortunes on
THEY'RE the real-life Crazy Rich Asians splashing out up to half a million dollars on outrageously lavish "pre-wedding" photo shoots.
Whether underwater, suspended in mid-air from wires like a scene from The Matrix, or on the Antarctic ice under the southern lights, Allen Shi is the man who makes it happen.
Dubbed the "Godfather of the pre-wedding photo industry" in China, the 38-year-old has risen from absolute poverty to turning over $2 billion through his company The Jiahao Group in less than eight years.
Mr Shi has tapped into a growing demand for western-style romance in China, where the wedding industry is estimated to be worth $80 billion annually.
It's a far cry from just over four decades ago during the Cultural Revolution, when marriage in China was arranged by the state or the family. Under Mao Zedong's rule, romantic love was viewed as a capitalist concept and not permitted.
"It's a major industry," said Mr Shi. The flamboyant, baby-faced billionaire stars in the upcoming Australian documentary China Love, which shows how these "wedding photos on steroids" were once sterile, passport-style records of marriage.
"I started 10 years ago when I was trying to find a career path in something different, something happy. I thought, if I wanted to get married, is there any product that would make me happy and 100 per cent satisfied?"
Mr Shi said the pre-wedding shoot was "a way to make a perfect photo for every single girl and every bride, because on the wedding day you cannot focus on photos".
"Anything can happen - the weather could be bad, friends and family (need) attention," he said. "All girls, wherever they come from, want a perfectly made pre-wedding photo, 100 per cent dedicated to their beauty and youth."
Mr Shi said just like rich families and royalty in Europe who take commemorative wedding photos as "perfect record of this moment", his pre-wedding photos could "pass on generation after generation for a century".
One of his most memorable photoshoots was for a couple who spent 50 days travelling the globe to take an entire pre-wedding photo album. "We sent a group of representatives and a wedding gown to travel along with this couple," he said.
"They started in some islands to take some photos under the water with whales, travelled to the Antarctic to take photos with the aurora, then travelled to the desert, then ended up in Africa to take shots photos with wild animals. It was a tour-the-world kind of wedding photo, a very special photo album."
Mr Shi has kept in contact with the "very special couple". "They've been married for seven years now and say they have no fights (because) whenever they have arguments they pull out this photo album and look at it," he said.
"This album is not just about the photos. It means a lot to me and my company."
While the documentary highlights the ultra-rich who splash out on lavish photoshoots in exotic locations - shadowed by crack teams of hair and makeup artists, stylists and celebrity photographers - wedding photos are popular with all sections of society.
"That's only the very wealthy," China Love director Olivia Martin-McGuire said. "Ninety per cent of the country don't own a passport and they will never travel, so it's still a poor country. There's a massive trend where elderly people are getting their wedding photos done for the first time."
She described the idea of romance as relatively new in China. "Romance is a very western concept," she said.
"And actually if you break it down, it's pretty much linked with money and commercialism, buying things and having things. Romance is more about the self whereas in China love was very much tied to the family."
Pre-wedding photos allow couples to experience both worlds. "The weddings are still very much about honouring the family, but the photos can be really about the self," she said.
Martin-McGuire stops short of describing them as fake or artificial. "It is definitely putting on a show," she said.
"I don't think the Chinese people are obsessed with things being real. Australians need everything to be honest - these photos are just pure fantasy, they are 100 per cent for show. They represent aspirations for status or money."
Martin-McGuire, a Hong Kong-based photojournalist, said the film initially started out as a successful photo series, which she then pitched as a documentary.
She was on a job for an Australian newspaper at The Bund, a waterfront area in central Shanghai, when she noticed brides rushing around having photos taken in front of the historical European-style sandstone buildings.
"I'd seen them before but on this particular morning there were bucketloads of them, all in these colourful outfits," she said.
"They were all hiking up their dresses and had these little white sneakers on, rushing, rushing everywhere. These quick photoshoots in these white sneakers. That's how it began for me. I just got sucked in."
Once she started asking questions about "why the entire country got these photos done and why it was so critically important", she "realised it was an interesting, non-political window into contemporary China".
"It's a very humanitarian film," she said. "I think in some ways China is demonised in the Australian media a little bit. I don't think you can really understand China unless you understand where it has come from."
Just one generation ago people "had to wear a uniform" and there was no contact with the outside world - modern Chinese are living in a "futuristic" society.
"In other countries you have the past and the present and the future," Martin-McGuire said. "In China there's not really any present - the past is just pushing against the future."
For China Love session times and to book your tickets, visit Demand.Film