When Chinese Furniture Takes Centre Stage in Film and Television

When Chinese Furniture Takes Centre Stage in Film and Television

Here at Shimu we are one of the UK’s leading suppliers of original antique Chinese furniture and as appreciators of all-things oriental, we love to see furniture from China used in film and TV. With this in mind, we thought we’d look at some great examples of how beautiful Chinese furniture and accessories have been used in film and TV to enrich the plot or enhance a theme.

Chinese furniture is renowned for its often intricate designs and historical significance, ensuring that it has long played a useful role when a certain aesthetic and narrative depth is called for during film and TV production. Audiences appreciate richly decorated sets and period accuracy, so the inclusion of Chinese and Chinese antique furniture in films and TV series has often been a subtle yet powerful tool to evoke a sense of authenticity and exoticism, or to enrich character development.

One of the most visually striking uses of Chinese furniture can be seen in the film "The Last Emperor" (1987), directed by Bernardo Bertolucci. This film, which chronicles the life of the last Emperor of China, Puyi, uses authentic Chinese furniture to recreate the opulent surroundings of the Forbidden City. The furniture in the film is visually stunning and serves as a narrative device, reflecting the isolation and decay of the Qing Dynasty. The use of dark lacquered cabinets, elaborately carved chairs, and ornate screens helps transport viewers back to early 20th century China, making the historical drama much more immersive.

Similarly, in the TV series "Sherlock", the episode titled "The Blind Banker", showcases various pieces of Chinese furniture to set the scene and add layers to the story. This episode revolves around a series of symbols hidden in an old Chinese artefact. The use of traditional Chinese cabinets and tables not only serves the plot but also subtly complements the theme of mystery and the unknown, which are central to the series. These pieces add an authentic element to the scenes, grounding the more fantastical elements of the story in a tangible reality.

Chinese Lanterns for Skyfall

Chinese furniture is also often used to signify the presence of a character with a rich, culturally diverse background or to suggest a connection to Asia. In the film "Skyfall" (2012), part of the James Bond series, we see the antagonist Raoul Silva's lair, which is adorned with Chinese decor. We’re proud to confirm that when Skyfall was in production, the buying team approached us as they were looking for range of pieces to use in the film. We were delighted to help and as a result you’ll be able to spot Shimu pieces ranging from a wooden towel trail and antique stools, to brass window hardware and reproduction tables, all playing an important part in Skyfall. Perhaps the greatest challenge, though, was providing a large number of Chinese lanterns in a wide range of sizes and shapes, including large lanterns in bigger sizes than those normally available. We were so pleased with how the lanterns looked in the film and if you’ve seen Skyfall, you’ll hopefully remember the beautiful effect the lanterns create.

47 Ronin, the 2013 film starring Keanu Reeves which tells the tale of the celebrated ‘47 Ronin’, a band of Japanese Samurai swordsmen who avenge the death of their master in the early 18th century, is another film in which Shimu played a role. We’re often asked by our customers to make simple changes to our standard furniture, such as an alteration to the dimensions, a different finish, or an extra shelf inside a wardrobe, for example. However, when 47 Ronin was due to be filmed in the UK, we received a call from the production team with a request that was a little bit different: they were looking for 25 authentic-looking stools for the Samurai to sit on. Once again we were happy to help and we created the stools required, complete with decorative relief carvings depicting dragons, woven seats and specially made brassware, designed to replicate similar stools from ancient Japan.

Another notable film production we’ve been involved in was The 355, a major Hollywood spy thriller released in 2022 and starring Penelope Cruz and Jessica Chastain, amongst others. We supplied a range of original Chinese antiques for this film, including three large antique altar tables, alongside various pieces of reproduction furniture and accessories. If you watch the film, see if you can spot any of these gorgeous pieces!

Chinese Horseshoe Armchair

The appeal of Chinese antique furniture also extends beyond films with direct links to China. Its presence in period dramas also signifies wealth and an eclectic taste, as these pieces were often collected by the upper classes during the colonial era. A notable example is the TV series "Downton Abbey", where Chinese screens and furniture pieces can be spotted in the background, reflecting the Crawley family’s status and their openness to global influences, which was becoming more common in the early 20th century among the British elite.

Although he’s not quite as refined as some of the characters in Downton Abbey, when Mr Bean needed a Chinese-style horseshoe chair to sit upon in a TV advert for Snickers chocolate bars, the production team knew where to turn to for help! We ended up providing a number of items, including a horseshoe chair, on loan to Pinewood Studios for the filming of the Snickers advert. A very expensive looking Chinese vase is smashed by Mr Bean towards the end of the advert but we’re relieved to report that it wasn’t one of ours!

Last and by no means least, we’ve also had the pleasure of working with a number of BBC production teams on well known TV series including Great Expectations starring Olivia Coleman, His Dark Materials and Dr Who. We supplied everything from several antique daybed tables for a scene set in a Victorian opium den, to chairs and a wide range of accessories including ginger jars, tang horses and other ornaments.

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