Why China’s patriotic action films are exploding in popularity – Cameron L. White
In late February, Hollywood insiders went through the routine of checking the trades for that month’s new releases. Top billing went to Black Panther, which had bagged $83 million the previous weekend. Yet the weekend’s real winner was a film most Americans had never even heard of. Raking in $106.4 million, Operation Red Sea (红海行动) had conquered global box office rankings, despite barely surpassing $1 million outside China in the same period.
Directed by Hong Kong filmmaker Dante Lam, and a loose follow-up to his previous film Operation Mekong, Operation Red Sea was inspired by the 2015 evacuation of Chinese nationals from Yemen. The film begins with the members of Jiaolong, a Chinese naval special ops force, liberating a hijacked cargo ship off the coast of Africa. From there, the plot pivots into another rescue mission. The fictional country of Yewaire has descended into revolutionary chaos, and a Chinese woman is being held captive by rebels. Each member of Jiaolong must contribute his or her particular skill (sniping, suturing, strategizing) to save the hostage, before dealing with a nagging subplot involving the threat of global nuclear terrorism. The film ends with a teaser where warships from an unidentified country jet across the South China Sea, while a blaring voiceover in Mandarin and English warns them to leave Chinese waters – a stern reminder that the South China Sea is invariably a part of China.
If that plot sounds familiar, you’re not imagining things. Last year’s Wolf Warrior 2 (战狼二), the highest grossing Chinese film of all time (bringing in $854 million domestically), was also inspired by the Yemen incident; also begins with a foiled hijacking off the coast of Africa; also focuses on the rescue of Chinese nationals from a fictional war-torn country; and also features a convoluted humanitarian subplot (in its case, the race to cure an ebola-like disease ravaging locals).
Many foreign critics have panned Operation Red Sea and Wolf Warrior 2 as bloated works of jingoism. They point out the excessive violence, the PLA Navy’s production assistance on both films, and some of the more eyebrow-raising dialogue. For instance, in the final fight scene of Wolf Warrior 2, the white villain, Big Daddy (Rafael Grillo), tells the Chinese hero, Leng Feng (Wu Jing), “People like you will always be inferior to people like me. Get used to it.” The racial implication of the line is lost on no one, least of all Leng Feng. “That’s fucking history,” he hisses, before repeatedly stabbing Big Daddy in the face.
Yet foreign viewers shouldn’t just fixate on these films as propaganda. The label has a way of ending conversations, excusing further examination. Millions of Chinese have chosen to see these films in theaters. Not only should we be asking why, but also what the explosive popularity of patriotic film means for the future of Chinese cinema.
The ‘why’ begins with Hollywood. The Chinese government generally grants theatrical releases to 34 foreign films each year, which leads American studios to push the films they predict will be the most profitable. Consequently, the Chinese market has been strafed with CGI-heavy franchise films like Furious 7 and World of Warcraft, both of which grossed more in China than they did in the US. The steady churn of special effects-laden fare has primed the tastes of Chinese audiences. But during special “blackout periods,” usually during the summer holiday and Chinese New Year, the government prohibits foreign films from screening at all, leaving a vacuum for local films to fill. Enter Wolf Warrior 2. In addition to screening during last summer’s blackout period, it invested heavily in CGI.
“Foreign viewers shouldn’t just fixate on these films as propaganda. The label has a way of ending conversations”
That strategy paid dividends. When I asked a Chinese coworker last summer why he saw Wolf Warrior 2, he told me it was a Chinese movie where the special effects were “almost as good as in a Marvel film.” (Coincidentally, the Russo brothers – who directed two Captain America movies – consulted on the action sequences.) That is a noteworthy comment, not only for what it says about China’s appetite for big budget films, but also for the implied desire among Chinese audiences to see local takes on a globally-recognized genre: the action hero or superhero film.
For years, China’s political and creative elite have been puzzled by the country’s lack of cultural “soft power,” not only compared to the US, but also to South Korea, whose TV dramas are immensely popular among Chinese youth. Even President Xi Jinping has weighed in on this issue. At a 2014 arts symposium in Beijing, he suggested, “Chinese art will further develop only when we make foreign things serve China, and bring Chinese and Western arts together via thorough understanding.”
That Wolf Warrior 2 successfully emulated a Hollywood genre is a big step forward in China’s blockbuster aspirations. It also adds a layer of nuance to the propaganda debate. The huge ticket sales aren’t necessarily an endorsement of the film’s tagline: “Anyone who offends China will be killed no matter how far the target is” (犯我中华者虽远必诛, although Global Times took issue with the English translation). Rather, it is a reflection of Chinese people’s desires and curiosity: What does a Chinese-written, Chinese-directed, and China-oriented macho superhero movie look like?
Even after Chinese audiences were able to answer that question for themselves, they didn’t reach the same conclusion. On Douban, the Rotten Tomatoes of China, there’s a vibrant sub-discussion on the Wolf Warrior 2 page about the film’s relationship with patriotism. Audience takes range from, “Seeing Wolf Warrior 2 finally got me to realize that we Chinese should be proud of ourselves,” to, “I wrote my first long-form review because this film damaged my ethnic self-respect.” There is an overlooked paradox in this patriotic cinema: a film can unite audiences around their deep-seated love for China, but it can also alienate viewers who feel it misrepresents the nationalism it claims to champion. In this case, not all Chinese want to see their national identity married to images of violence.
Unsurprisingly, Chinese authorities have been unwilling to engage with that paradox. While random negative reviews of Wolf Warrior 2 still stand on Douban, more high-profile critiques were censored. A prime example is the case of Yin Shanshan, a lecturer at the Central Academy of Drama. After writing a negative review in which she accused the film of being too violent compared to other, better, patriotic films, she lost her verified status on Weibo and possibly even her job.
The growth of Chinese patriotic cinema is only going to accelerate. The government chose Wolf Warrior 2 as the country’s 2018 submission for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar, signaling official approval of the genre. Meanwhile, the success of Operation Red Sea is attracting producers and investors to similar scripts. Yet this is no cultural coup for the CCP. The action blockbuster is currently the most visible narrative medium of Chinese nationalism. To sustain itself in the box office, the genre will need to continually exceed itself, bringing in more explosions, more effects, more spectacle of war and violence. Is that really what the Chinese government wants its people – and the world – to see? ∎