Soft Power, Hard Sell

Wolf Warrior

This summer, the Chinese cinema was not short of home-made explosives. Military-themed Chinese movies marked the PLA’s 90th birthday, and thanks to the Domestic Film Protection Month, no Hollywood blockbusters or other foreign movies diverted the attention of Chinese moviegoers.

One such film, The Founding of an Army, was supposed to be the feature of the month. It is based on Party legend about the Aug 1, 1927 military uprising in Nanchang, Jiangxi province that gave birth to the Communist Party’s force which later became the People’s Liberation Army. The movie joined The Founding of a Republic (2009) and The Founding of a Party (2011) as the final piece in the Founding Trilogy dedicated to the Communist Party’s struggle to establish New China in the first half of the 20th century. Apart from its ideological purity, the movie boasts an all-star cast that includes some of the most popular names with the country’s millennials, a sign of the filmmakers’ intention to win the eyes and ears, if not already the hearts and minds, of a younger generation. In today’s China, the second largest film market in the world, the Party’s blessing alone is not sufficient guarantee of box office dominance. The majority of viewers need to be lured, rather than forced, to see a movie. In this regard, ideological purity could be a liability

The film’s embarrassing marketing blunders underscore this challenge. At one point, online promotional materials included posters that branded the Communist military heroes as Chinese Avengers, and claimed that the movie was as good as the best gangster films in Hong Kong (the director, Liu Weiqiang, happens to be famous for gangster movies). This drew wide ridicule from netizens. The film’s casting of young idols to play Communist leaders such as Ju Qiubai and Ye Ting, an apparent attempt to tap into the enormous fandom they command, also met with harsh criticism from descendants of the Founding heroes. One of them, film director Ye Daying, the grandson of Ye Ting, attacked the actor who played his grandfather as “a sissy who can’t even stand straight”.

While The Founding of an Army had to tread a precariously narrow line between the need to appeal to star-chasing millennials and to honor political orthodoxy, another movie, stripped from any obligation to historical accuracy, found a potent formula to launch itself into the stratosphere of Chinese blockbusters. Its jaw-dropping box office performance encouraged those who have long sought to shore up China’s cultural “soft power”, and alarmed critics who were sickened by its belligerent message.

Wolf Warrior II, the second installment of a commando-saves-all action movie series created and directed by Chinese Kung Fu star Wu Jing, grossed more than RMB 5 billion in box office revenue four weeks into its debut in late July (it stood at 7.3 billion by early September), becoming the highest earning Chinese movie of all time. Set in a fictional African country torn apart by a bloody civil war and a deadly contagious disease, the movie hero is retired Chinese special force soldier Leng Feng, who single-handedly crushes cold-blooded rebel forces and their even more ruthless mercenaries (who are Caucasians), and leads a band of stranded Chinese workers facing slaughter to safety.

The plot is not new. Moviegoers are well exposed to the kinds of stories that feature super soldiers neutralizing entire armies to accomplish noble goals. Many have compared the film to Hollywood action films such as First Blood and even Captain America. Some attribute its box office success to a level of professional execution that approaches Hollywood blockbusters, still a relatively rare quality in Chinese productions despite ballooning budgets in recent years. The 160 second underwater longshot at the beginning of the movie was applauded by online commentators as a cinematographic feat. Some industry insiders even celebrated it as a sign of the maturation of “mainstream value movies” as a genre. Traditionally, such movies reek of Party propaganda and yield poor box office results. This time, rather than seeing such tricks as a lack of artistic ambition, which is often with the view of propaganda or genre films, commentators were  upbeat about a Chinese movie being able to pull off the showy shots that characterize mature Hollywood productions. “Mainstream value movies make up a major genre in most mature film markets. Any genre has its raison d’etre. You don’t dismiss an entire genre, which invariably contains outstanding and mediocre productions,” says one defender of the movie on Weibo.” As reference, he lists American Sniper, Air Force One and Saving Private Ryan, among others, as standard bearers of so-called mainstream value movies. “American national flags are ubiquitous in such blockbusters.”

In a way the sentiment reflects the harsh reality of the Chinese movie theatre, which is filled with exploitative B movies pretending to be high-budget blockbusters (伪大片). Even the above critics rate Wolf Warrior as a 7 out of 10, a nonetheless decent score given the low average standard. the score is considered particularly hard won for a film that tries to promote a patriotic message, which, as the Founding of an Army shows, isn’t an easy sell for the majority of cinema goers who seek an escapist experience free of clumsy political indoctrination.

One aspect of the Wolf Warrior franchise’s commercial success that’s easily overlooked is its connection with a thriving online military subculture. The movie’s chief screenwriter Fenwuyaorao is one of the most popular authors on qidian.com, a portal for online pop fiction that has generated a sophisticated web of genres and sub-genres. Wolf Warrior has its roots in Bullet Holes (2006), an online novel that tells the story of a young man growing from an army rookie into a super commando. As a genre, such works are often valued for the authenticity in their description of weaponry and battlefield tactics, a major attraction for a predominantly male readership. The author’s ID on qidian.com invokes a sense of awe among his followers, for his grasp of military knowledge. For some of these fans, the author’s name alone is sufficient reason for purchasing a ticket. A manager at Yuewen Group, which owns Qidian.com, proudly declared on Weibo that their authors were among the savviest in terms of “reading” the commercial entertainment market, which is likely true given their close interactions with their reader community compared to more conventional authors of fictional works. As soon as Wolf Warrior II was released, military fans on social media circulated video clips detailing weapons featured in the film, which included Chinese-made submachine guns, tanks, destroyers and the Liaoning Aircraft Carrier. There were also lively discussions about the difference between Chinese and US special forces in terms of their underlying organizing principles, inspired by scenes in the movie.

Clearly the movie’s impact goes way beyond the subcultural community and resonates with a much larger audience. It’s that broader resonance that raises expectations, questions, and eyebrows. “Wu Jing did what the Great Wall failed to do,” declared the Beijing Daily, an ideologically rigid mouthpiece run by the Beijing Municipal Party Committee. (The Great Wall, a 2016 man vs. monster Chinese big budget movie that cast Hollywood stars such as Matt Damon, was an embarrassing box office fiasco both domestically and abroad.) Wolf Warrior II is praised for its “sophisticated commercial storytelling and heroism-centered core values.” The protagonist, an underdog character (he was dismissed from the special force for breaking the law) in search of his beloved girlfriend, is considered “sufficiently sympathetic” for viewers. The up and downs of his adventure follow a tightly woven, Hollywood style heroism narrative that appeals widely. Meanwhile, his embodiment of China’s commitment to peace and to protecting the safety of its citizens globally, advances the values of a rising superpower. All in all, the movie contributes to the “going global of Chinese culture,” said the Beijing Daily commentary. Discussions about the movie convey the idea that “Hollywood production”, once mastered, can be an effective vehicle for the spread of Chinese values, which harkens back to the notion of “Western learning as an application, Chinese learning as a foundation” (中学为体,西学为用) at the beginning of China’s modernization efforts 150 years ago.

The question is whether core Chinese values are really universally appealing, as suggested by the overtly optimistic Beijing Daily. The movie’s actual overseas earnings may tell a different story (it grossed just under 3 million USD in the US market, for example). In the movie, there are multiple scenes that deliberately highlight the exceptional status of the Chinese nationality, which can be off-putting from a non-Chinese point of view. One of the more memorable scenes is when a bus full of Chinese citizens, organized by the Chinese embassy in the fictional African country, cruises through the war-torn capital city late at night towards the port where Chinese naval battleships are waiting. In the darkness, people inside the bus, with tired, solemn faces, watch silently out of the window, where the streets are still burning, and broken dead bodies of African people lie everywhere. The intended contrast between the spaces in and outside the bus cannot be less subtle. Lucky you are Chinese, the message says loud and clear. As if this alone won’t drive the point home, in another scene, the heroine of the film, a Chinese-American doctor, gets frustrated with the US government, which, together with the United Nations, has pulled out of the African country leaving its people behind. Turns out only China stays to take care of its citizens. That theme gets blown up to almost bizarre proportions in a scene where the Chinese manager of a Chinese-owned factory insists on a Chinese-only policy before evacuation, to the outrage of African workers. That’s when Leng Feng, the hero of the movie, declares that everybody should go together, effectively pulling the plot back from the brink of moral disaster.

The message is repeatedly reinforced by the movie’s director and lead actor Wu Jing, who, in numerous appearances and interviews, emphasizes that there is nothing wrong with being patriotic. “The patriotic firewood in the chests of the Chinese audience has been fully dried. All I need to do is to light it up with a match,” he famously told a journalist. He also recounted his humiliating experience in the 1980s when he applied for a visa to visit a foreign country, an inspiration for him to show the cover of a Chinese passport at the end of the movie that says every Chinese should rest assured that your country will come to your protection whenever you are in danger overseas.

The strong message is hard to swallow even for those who otherwise like the movie. “The quality of the production has basically reached 21st century level, but the patriotic part seems to stay in the 1980s. No wonder some viewers feel awkward,” comments the CEO of Sina Weibo. The “Chinese exceptionalism” depicted in the movie, the idea that Chinese citizens somehow enjoy better protection overseas due to their nationality, also runs counter to the real experience of many who actually went through wars and conflicts in Africa. “The Embassy would ask if you held an official passport (for government employees and state-owned companies mainly) or a private one. If it’s the latter, which applies to 99% of Chinese overseas, then it would tell you that you are on your own,” writes a Weibo user who have spent four years in Africa.

Some critics go much further in their critique of what they see as the Wolf Warrior’s value system. “A burning piece of war declaration against the world”, as one unforgiving Weibo post labels it. It argues that the main message of the movie is bare and simple: I’m finally strong enough so I may beat you up if you piss me off. The author calls it a gangster mentality, a brand of justice that belongs to street corners (“Whoever pledge allegiance under my flag is protected by me”). He contrasts it with a more “universal” value embedded in the works of “mainstream art works”, including Saving Private Ryan and Assembly by Chinese director Feng Xiaogang, which uphold human dignity against the violence of war. Viewers are reminded of the suffering of armed conflicts and the preciousness of peace. Such movies should invoke compassion for fellow human beings, not “hot-blooded impulses to fight”.

Views like this are common among social media critics of the film, who consider its mindset too narrowly Chinese (us vs. anyone not us). To be fair to Wolf Warrior II, the movie does demonstrate an unusually “globalist” commitment to international affairs, although it is handled deliberately and a bit clumsily. There are multiple places in the movie where characters emphasize the importance of UN authorization before any Chinese military intervention, setting the stage for a one-man rescue mission detached from the Chinese authority. Apparently such little details easily get drowned in a sea of blood and violence.

Speaking of violence, the loudest and most scathing criticism of Wolf Warrior II centers on its display of brutality. The critique comes from a viral video produced by Cai Yinshanshan, a veteran movie critic online and lecturer at China’s Central Academy of Drama. Claiming that she otherwise would love to see Chinese patriotic films prosper as a category, Cai objects to Wu Jing’s “senseless” use of naked violence, which she regards as a reflection of the director’s “sadistic” inclinations. She is particularly uncomfortable with a multi-minute scene where Wu punches his already defeated mercenary rival to death in front of a group of captive women and children, seeing it as unnecessarily bloody. She also picks issue with the characterization of villains in the film, who seem to possess no purpose but to slaughter for sport. “Even villains need a value system to be plausible in the movie,” argues Cai, otherwise they become a mere excuse to show off killing as “spectacles” from which the audience generates no meaningful reflection.

If the Hollywood standard still applies, the violence on display in Wolf Warrior II, intensive as it is, is not exceptionally gruesome (Sin City watchers should know what I mean). But Cai’s larger point may be valid. To some extent, the whole movie can be seen as a convenient set-up to show off the might of a rising superpower: the African nation that embodies all the stereotypes of a chaotic, infernal continent; the rebels and mercenary soldiers who are evil to their core (and harbor racist hostility toward the Chinese people), plus the entire disappearance of the Americans and Europeans from the scene, all seemingly put together so that Leng Feng can ruthlessly land his vengeful fists on a white mercenary and the Chinese navy can resolutely launch its cruise missiles onto the rebels.

Unfortunately, by implying that a national hero like Wu Jing might be a blood-thirsty “psychopath”, Cai has crossed the line for some people. She soon tasted the wrath of Wolf Warrior II fans who harassed her through phone calls and pressured the Academy to dismiss her as a teacher. As in so many previous incidents, the first to experience the country’s patriotic muscle is not some gun-wielding rebel in remote Africa, but rather the rebels within China who dare to label patriots as gangsters.

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5 thoughts on “Soft Power, Hard Sell

  1. I was hoping this movie would be the topic of this month. I was not disappointed by this article. Great writing!

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  2. Another good piece with very interesting insights. I think American film makers have learned to tame their overly mawkish patriotic impulses. I remember watching “Pearl Habor”, a 2001 film starring Ben Affleck. I found it unwatchable. I am sure Chinese filmmakers will soon learn how to do also.

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  3. Great writing as ever.
    The most intriguing part of this legend to me is that Wu was mostly known for the ruthless and sadistic killers he stared in HK-made gangster films, until the success of this movie series which seem to have made him somewhat a national patriotic hero
    I regrettably didn’t take the chance to watch this film, but deducing from what I’ve learnt so far, at least some of said sociopathic characters did survive censorship, an amazing feat indeed.

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  4. Much ado about nothing. Such a long read and so much of word sophistication. Personally i liked the movie. It was better than Most of Hollywood actionhero blockbusters. At least Leng Feng was only saving Chinese. He never sayed that he is saving the whole mankind on earth and beyond like we get to see from every X Y Z Hollywood film.

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