With the confluence of restricted travel and unbridled streaming entertainment, video-on-demand services are taking millions of armchair travellers on vicarious journeys around the world every day.
From the ancient ruins of Egypt to a 2,000-hectare paddy art destination, these five movies and TV shows from the past year feature stunning locales that will stir up serious travel longings.
1. The Queen’s Gambit
A 2020 Netflix sensation that revived interest in chess, The Queen’s Gambit also got viewers reliving the romance of travel again. While the mini-series was set in the chilly Cold War era, there is a certain familiarity about a period when travel was for the elites and a distant dream for the masses.
The adaptation of Walter Tevis’ namesake novel tells the coming-of-age story of orphaned chess prodigy Beth Harmon (Anya Taylor Joy). Led to her calling by an unlikely friend and chess mentor, she pulled herself and her adoptive mother out of unfortunate circumstances — and into the glamorous world of the jet set. Viewers ride along as they fly from one megacity to another for tournaments, sharing in the initial awe, but also missteps, and eventual triumph over opponents and self.
In The Queen's Gambit, chess prodigy Beth Harmon travels the globe in her quest for championships.
In the series, Harmon competed in charming venues in Las Vegas, Mexico City, Paris and Moscow. But in reality, most of these scenes were filmed in Berlin, Germany.
The glamorous Paris leg was shot in Haus Cumberland in Charlottenburg, Berlin. This luxurious heritage building was built in 1912, and served as an apartment-hotel before becoming an upmarket residential and commercial complex in more recent years. Other scenes from the Paris leg were filmed in the Bode Museum, which stands on the north side of Museum Island, a popular tourist attraction.
The Las Vegas scene in The Queen's Gambit was actually filmed in Palais am Funkturm, an events venue in Berlin.
Of familiarity to business planners is Palais am Funkturm in Berlin, an events venue built in 1956 and featured in the show’s Las Vegas scene. Now operated by Messe Berlin, the building combines modern functionality with 50s and 60s glamour. It houses Berlin’s most spacious ballroom, complete with slick design elements to accommodate a range of event sizes such as a retractable staircase, partitions and a chandelier that is adjustable for height.
Fittingly, the final leg in Russia was shot in one of the most grandiose filming locations in the series, the Bärensaal (Bear Hall) of the Altes Stadthaus (old City Hall). Pity that the building is not open to the public, being the base of the Berlin Senate Department of Internal Affairs.
The Queen’s Gambit is now streaming on Netflix.
2. My People, My Homeland / 我和我的家乡
This feel-good anthology produced by acclaimed auteur Zhang Yimou is a collection of five short films celebrating different aspects of rural China: its ways of life, human connections, and of course, sprawling verdant landscapes.
If My People, My Homeland were a love letter to rural China, its picture-perfect shots of the countryside can be said to be the filmmakers’ postcards to the world: rolling hills and grassland of Guizhou’s Afu Village, and dreamy tourist attractions.
The colourful, castle-like Fuwen Township Central Primary School in Hangzhou City was a major film location in My People, My Homeland.
Short story, Magical Touches had its travel-inspo scenes filmed in Shenyang Tanbo Art Farm (Dao Meng Kong Jian), a 2,000-hectare park and visitor attraction where farming and art come together to create impressive displays.
The demonstration of touristic value may have been a tad on the nose here, but no doubt effective. In a particularly memorable scene in The Magical Touches, the character visits a 'village' with a cameraman in tow, and poses for photos in a sunflower field. For this scene to come together, sunflower seedlings had been painstakingly gathered from farmers and transplanted onto an impressive seven-acre plot in the park.
The sunflower fields are one of the most memorable backdrops in My People, My Homeland.
Camera-toting tourists have also started descending upon an unexpected new Hangzhou attraction — a primary school. Although, if you have seen the movie, there would be no wonder why this location became an overnight viral sensation. Fuwen Township Central Primary School (Chun'an County, Hangzhou City), featured in The Last Class, looks like something out of a children’s fairytale. At night, it glows in brilliant technicolour as light spills through the panels cladding the building.
My People, My Homeland is now streaming on Olevod.
3. Westworld (Season 3)
Westworld is a wild west themed park where wealthy guests engage in hyper-immersive role-playing games. The experience is made extra realistic by spookily convincing AI characters (or “hosts”) — until one day, the robots started glitching.
There was palpable hype surrounding the release of season 3, with the crew revealing that filming took place in Singapore; a far cry from the familiar wild west backdrop. Without giving too much away, season 3 saw humans and hosts breach the boundaries of the park and into Los Angeles in 2052.
Singapore's DNA-inspired Helix Bridge was an obvious filming choice for Westworld.
Singapore, known for a style of eco engineering as seen in its iconic man-made waterfalls and supersized trees, provided the futuristic backdrop for season 3.
It would be a tall call to find a more fitting landmark than the Helix Bridge, modelled after DNA, given its obvious links with Westworld’s themes of artificial intelligence and what it means to be human.
Symbolisms aside, the structure in Singapore’s downtown core is an architectural and design feat in itself. There were challenges when it came to creating a lightweight and curved, yet stable and functional structure. With some innovative problem solving between collaborating architects in Singapore and Australia, the result was a unique landmark where two delicate helix structures act together to resist design loads, and 'canopies' (made of fritted-glass and perforated steel mesh) are incorporated along parts of the inner spiral to provide shade.
Another instance of an eco-environment featured in the series is ParkRoyal Collection Pickering. Featuring organic lines, green walls and a tiered sky garden along the facade, the hotel sits in the middle of a mixed landscape, separating the central business district, public housing, shophouses and a park.
The series also takes viewers to other local attractions including the National Gallery museum, which was portrayed as a bank in the series, and the offshore island of Pulau Ubin.
Westworld is now streaming on Amazon Prime and HBO Max.
Tenet may have its place in cinematic history as one of the first movies to return to the big screen since movie theatres shuttered due to Covid last year. But the sci-fi action movie was also notable for being Christopher Nolan’s most ambitious work to date, having been shot in seven different countries. You heard that right. Filming took place in Denmark, Estonia, India, Italy, Norway, the UK and the US.
In the world of Tenet, The Protagonist (John David Washington) and Neil (Robert Pattinson) are operatives on a mission around the globe to prevent a powerful time-bending discovery from falling into the wrong hands. Failing to do so would result in an event “worse than a nuclear holocaust”.
Italy’s Amalfi coast is featured in crucial scenes in the science fiction action-thriller film
The duo’s first meeting was set in the Royal Bombay Yacht Club, which had its century-old origins as a gentlemen's club during colonial times, before going on to serve as a clubhouse for an elite group including prominent members of the international sailing community. Today, as a hotel and dining establishment, the building continues to beckon members and their guests to the seafront location with its old-worldly charm.
South Mumbai continues to feature in the second act. In their first action sequence together, the pair infiltrate a penthouse crowning the Neelam Shree Vardhan Tower by scaling the tower’s exterior on two feet, before bungeeing off the top
Tenet was shot in Mumbai, where the Neelam Shree Vardhan Tower was the backdrop for the bungeeing scene.
Adding intrigue to the heart-stopping scene, the almost palatial building commands the skyline in the upmarket residential district of Breach Candy as oblivious crowds mill around on the busy street below. This picture of a newly developed district invites a certain urban-touristic gaze. Nolan himself has marvelled at the combination of architecture and “abundance of life on the streets” that make Mumbai “one of the most extraordinary looking cities in the world”.
Peaceful moments were few and far between in the film, but thanks to the picturesque backdrop of Italy’s Amalfi Coast, the scene where The Protagonist meets with Kat will be a difficult one to forget.
Tenet is now streaming on Vudu and Amazon Prime Video.
On the surface, Luxor almost feels like a travelogue of Egypt. Washed in soft pastel hues and meditative soundtrack (dialogue was kept minimal and political conflict out of frame), Luxor placed the most awe-inspiring parts of Egypt front and centre. Aerial shots of ancient cities, towering columns and vast desert terrain that teem with historical mysteries and spiritual mysticism, captures the sense of wonder so closely tied to travel.
A scene from Luxor, which features many aerial shots of ancient cities, towering columns and vast desert terrain in Egypt.
But the slow and quiet film also left ample room to explore the character’s inner journey. Looking past the breathtaking shots, viewers get to know Hana (Andrea Riseborough), an aid worker who battles old memories and the unspoken burdens of working in a war zone. On her return to Egypt, she reconnects with old love, but also finds herself having to reconcile the dilemmas of the present.
The movie was filmed in Luxor, a city in upper Egypt on the east bank of the Nile River. Because the city sits on the site of ancient Thebes and houses remnants of large monuments (Luxor Temple and Karnak Temple), it has been described as its own “open-air museum”.
Luxor, a city in upper Egypt on the east bank of the Nile River, is described as an "open-air museum. Credit: Getty Images/OlyaSolodenko
Scenes were shot in these key locations, but also the Sofitel Winter Palace Hotel. The 19th century hotel has a rich history, having been a landmark from colonial times as well as a winter palace for the Egyptian royal family.
After premiering at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival, Luxor is now streaming on Vudu, Amazon Prime Video and iTunes.