Crash Course: China’s Modern Blockbusters Part 1

“We must on no account reject the legacies of the ancients and the foreigners or refuse to learn from them, even though they are the works of the feudal or bourgeois classes. But taking over legacies and using them as examples must never replace our own creative work; nothing can do that. Uncritical transplantation or copying from the ancients and the foreigners is the most sterile and harmful dogmatism in literature and art.” — Mao Zedong, talks at the Yenan Forum on Literature and Art, May 2nd 1942

For much of the 2010s it was no secret that The People’s Republic of China was becoming an intensely important market for cinema.  If you look in the trades you’ll see article after article about movies making hundreds of millions of dollars there and of studio executives bending over to pander to that market.  I’ve been reading about it in Erich Schwartzel’s book “Red Carpet: Hollywood, China, and the Global Battle for Cultural Supremacy,” and meeting the demands of the CCP has been pretty all encompassing for that whole industry for a decade.  We have not, however, heard many stories of the trade routes going in the other direction.  Depending on your view of Taiwanese sovereignty the highest grossing movie from mainland China in America is 2003’s Hero, which kind of predates the current boom, and even that (and many of the other wuxia films from that wave) were Hong Kong co-productions.  As far as I can tell the highest grossing purely Mainland Chinese film in the United States is 2006’s Curse of the Golden Flower, which made all of $6,566,773, slightly less than such “commercial” products as Amour and Fanny and Alexander.  But that doesn’t mean Chinese movies aren’t hugely profitable, in fact they’ve managed to set worldwide records largely using only their own domestic market.  These are some of the biggest global blockbusters in the world and yet I’m largely unfamiliar with them.  I’ve seen plenty of Hong Kong movies and some of China’s artier offerings like some of the “Fifth Generation” films or the works of people like Jia Zhangke, but like most westerners I’ve ignored the movies they’ve made for the masses and I feel like having some familiarity with what’s popular in this increasingly important market would be useful at some point.  Honestly I’m not sure how much I’ll like these or even if I’ll like them at all.  These are not movies made for outsiders and a lot of them look extremely nationalistic to the point of essentially being propaganda, but I’m going to try to watch with an open mind and see what I can learn.

Wolf Warrior (2015)

Wolf Warrior is the lowest grossing movie I’ll be looking at in this series; the film’s sequel is a record setting phenomenon that I’ll be covering at a later date but this original was actually a much more modest success at the Chinese box office.  It and its sequel are infamous for their patriotic chest beating, to the point where term “Wolf Warrior Diplomacy” has come to be widely used to describe Chinese diplomats publicly using confrontational tactics to appeal to home audiences who want to see their country talking tough on the world stage.  It would, however, not quite be correct to call this a government commissioned work of propaganda of the over “Battleship Potemkin” variety.  China does make those kinds of films, they tend to be dry re-enactments of historical events that the party wants to commemorate often on key anniversaries and primarily enjoyed by old people, and this wasn’t one of them.  It’s certainly a film that is interested in working in harmony with the CCP’s propaganda goals to gain their favor, and it’s also trying to exploit the nationalistic impulses of its audience the way that something like the Rambo series has been known to, but it was by all accounts not a film that the government had a lot of interest or faith in while it was being made and its origins are actually downright capitalistic.

The film is very much the passion project of its writer, director, and star Wu Jing.  Wu was a martial arts actor who had been toiling in Hong Kong and Mainland China since the mid-90s with middling-at-best success, sometimes using the westernized name “Jacky Wu.”  Wolf Warrior was the project Wu believed in and thought could be a breakout and invested a lot of his own money into.  The official story was that Wu watched the Chinese military doing a rescue operation after an earthquake and was so moved by their heroism that he wanted to make a movie to honor them… which is certainly a story with a ring of Public Relations to it.  I have a hunch that his real motives for making a movie of chest beating patriotism was a bit more cynical, but maybe he’s more of a true believer than that.  The film looks at a guy named Leng Feng, a military man who’s a bit of a rebel within the ranks (a somewhat unexpected character trait given the conformism you would expect to be prized in communist propaganda) who gets in trouble during an operation for going against orders to shoot a criminal who’s holding a hostage.  That slain criminal’s brother, a drug lord, then orders a hit on Leng Feng that is going to be carried out by a group of western mercenaries in a surprise attack on a training operation he’s taking part in.

So, the film’s story is pretty loopy.  We don’t really get to know Leng Feng very well beyond the fact that his patriotic zeal occasionally leads him to be insubordinate, and I must say I can see why Wu never really broke out as an actor prior to this, I wouldn’t say he has a ton of screen presence and often kind of blends in with the rest of the soldiers around him.  The film also isn’t great at keeping things simple and occasionally goes down strange roads like introducing a pack of actual (poorly CGIed) wolves for a scene or oddly offhandedly throwing in a sub-plot suggesting that the bad guys (who are supposedly employed by a common gangster) are trying to steal DNA to make bioweapons that would target China.  Interestingly, the lead bad guy mercenary is played by Scott Adkins, a British martial artist who is something of a king in the world of direct-to-video action movies.  I’m not too familiar with his work but this kind of highlights to me why he’s never really been able to break into the big times himself; he seems more like a stuntman who tries to act than an actor who does his own stunts, though I should perhaps reserve my judgement as I doubt he brought his verbal A-game to a movie intended for audiences who don’t speak English.

Adkins’ presence does kind of signal something about the movie, however, as the production values and ambitions here are not dissimilar from what I might expect from one of his direct-to-video movies, which is to say that it’s not a completely shoestring operation by any means and has some action chops under the hood but it’s also inelegant and not particularly tasteful or rigorous.  There are some action scene here that show some glimmers of potential to be sure, they’re competent but not very creative or artful and there’s nothing here you haven’t seen executed better elsewhere.  The cinematography is also drab and the sets are simultaneously way too high tech to be believable while also being cheap looking in a way that gives away the film’s relatively small budget. This is very much a film that clearly put all its effort into making its action scenes look decent and show off a bunch of military gear for certain kinds of audiences to gush over.  So, yeah, very much in line with the standards of those direct-to-video actioneers.  Lower your standards like that and this is a passable movie, but not one that has anything to really offer anyone not interested in the Chinese film industry or the film’s blockbuster sequel, which is what I’m guessing is what you have to see to really judge what this franchise is about.  I’m not going to jump into that one right away, but it’s on the to-do list.
** out of Five

Detective Chinatown (2015)

Comedy, straightforward unpretentious comedy, is probably the genre that’s the hardest to export.  Even if they tell stories that are relatively universal they rely a little too closely on linguistic idioms cultural norms that don’t quite translate and they have a timing to them that subtitles can be a bit too clumsy to match.  Some comedies are so intrinsically smart and well-made that they transcend all language barriers, but when it comes to the low brow populist stuff there really doesn’t tend to be too much of a need to explore the world’s offerings.  As such “low” comedy tends to be something of a boon for local filmmaking markets.  If you look at the box office receipts of any country normally associated with “art” cinema and you might be surprised to see that the movies you know from that country are actually vastly outgrossed by dumbass comedies you haven’t heard of.  For instance the year’s highest grossing non-Hollywood film in France is something called Serial (Bad) Weddings 3, the third installment of what appears to be some kind of Meet the Parents type thing.  Similarly in Spain the highest grossing local film isn’t one of the festival favorites like Alcarràs or Lullaby, it’s something called Father There Is Only One 3, the third installment of some kind of Cheaper by the Dozen type thing.  And of course it stands to reason that China would want its own Hollywood style mainstream comedy series, and the one that swooped in to take that slot was a little franchise called “Detective Chinatown.”

Like with Wolf Warrior the Detective Chinatown is a franchise started in 2015 which made money with the first film but didn’t start setting box office records until the sequel.  The series largely rests on the shoulders of a guy named Wang Baoqiang, a comedy star who feels kind of like a cross between the affable seediness of a Vince Vaughn with the wiry temperamentalness and commercial instincts of an Adam Sandler.  Wang scored a pretty sizable hit with the 2012 film Lost in Thailand, a sort of road movie comedy set in Bangkok.  This movie brings Wang back to Thailand, this time as an immigrant living and working as a police detective in that city’s famous Chinatown.  He is not, however, the film’s protagonist.  Rather he’s a drunken scoundrel more interested in vice than in real policing, a sort of much less depressing and more redeemable version of the character from Bad Lieutenant.  The film’s actual protagonist is played by Liu Haoran and is that character’s nephew, a young man of about eighteen who was passed over for entrance in the police academy and is planning to travel to Bangkok to shadow his police officer relative, unware that his uncle is actually going to turn out to be a very lousy role model.

The two actors have a pretty recognizable dynamic: Liu Haoran is the straight man while Wang Baoqiang is the boorish fool and the two dislike each other but must work together to solve a mystery while on the run after their falsely accused.  I could easily see a Hollywood comedy using the same basic concept, in fact I’m pretty sure a Hollywood comedy has used this concept even though I can’t quite come up with an example off the top of my head; it clearly follows existing formulas.  The most obvious counterpart is The Hangover, though it has a smaller ensemble and it’s generally a tamer and less raunchy movie.  Make no mistake the comedy here is pretty juvenile.  The movie has several jokes about people getting kicked in the balls, which probably gives you a good idea of how high the brow is here.  I didn’t find it very funny to be sure, but again, this is a movie made for a fairly localized audience.  I’m not familiar enough with the Mainland Chinese comedies that came before this to really say but I’m guessing that aspects of this were at least a little less familiar to the audience it was intended for, at least in terms of movies made by and for China.  Or maybe not and the people with taste there have about as much resentment for this as we do for crappy cookie-cutter Sandler movies.
** out of Five

Operation Red Sea (2018)

I’m jumping forward a bit in my examination of China’s modern blockbusters to a year after the 2017 release of Wolf Warrier 2 (a film I’ll come back to in part 2), which was something of a game changer at the Chinese box office.  In the following years there would be an acceleration in ambition in mainland Chinese cinema both in terms of the size of the films and how they were marketed.  China wanted its own films to be as big of a deal, at least with their own audiences, as Hollywood’s megaproductions and if they could make inroads at the box office outside their borders then all the better.  One of the first beneficiaries of that newfound ambition was the 2018 film Operation Red Sea, which was also building off the relative success of the director’s previous film Operation Mekong, to which this is something of a spiritual sequel.  Both “Operation” films were directed by a guy named Dante Lam, who we’ll encounter again with at least one movie film in this retrospective and who can probably be fairly described as one of contemporary China’s top commercial filmmakers.  Lam was born in Hong Kong and began his career in that system, though notably his first film came out in 1997, the year of that city-state’s handover from the British to the Chinese.  He continued to make Cantonese language films in Hong Kong for many years, most of them not exported very widely into the west, and over time these films came to be made for mainland audiences and with Operation Mekong (a film about Chinese authorities tangling with cartels on the border with Southeast Asia) he seems to have fully crossed over to Beijing’s system.

Operation Red Sea claims to be based on a true story, but that’s highly dubious.  The event it’s based on was the evacuation of Chinese citizens from Yemen in 2015 as that country’s war escalated.  In reality this wasn’t terribly dramatic; a Chinese navy ship pulled up to the harbor, the Chinese citizens got on board, then the boat left.  But the film envisions this as this highly explosive Black Hawk Down like situation filled with shooting and explosions in which the Chinese military covered itself in glory while protecting its citizens.  Of course the film doesn’t claim to be a direct depiction of history, in fact it’s set in the fictional country of Yewaire and in general the film is not supposed to be taken as a work of serious geopolitics, it’s an action movie.  So what we’ve basically been given is an unashamed Bruckheimer style action flick in which the Chinese military shoots the living shit out of terrorists in the Middle East.  This is something that Hollywood has mostly shied away from during the last twenty years what with the United States actively being in a war in this region.  The politics of movies like American Sniper and Lone Survivor are dubious to say the least but they’re nothing if not revenant and maudlin takes on the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts.  It would kind of take an outside country pretending to be more militarily engaged with the world than it really is in order to make something like this… even if the morality of doing so is still probably dubious.

Islamophobia is as much of a real issue in China as it is anywhere and one need not look much further than the repression of the Uyghurs to see the serious consequences of it.  So I would say it’s more than a little uneasy watching a fairly irreverent movie where the Chinese military goes toe-to-toe with fanatical terrorists wearing keffiyeh, largely removed from any real world scenario.  Having said that, if you can put all of that aside, the action in Operation Red Sea kind of slaps.  The film revels in pretty much every kind of military action you can imagine: firefights, tank battles, sniper duels, hostage rescues, etc. and while there’s some wonky CGI here and there it mostly remains grounded and practical in its methods.  The film sets off some very impressive seemingly practical explosions and it’s also not afraid to get pretty bloody at times.  That legacy of Hong Kong action is still there beneath the surface and Lam has been given a pretty large budget to work with.  What really holds the movie back is that it kind of lacks interesting characters to get behind, at least from where I sit.  The film is very much an ensemble without a central protagonist, which isn’t an entirely bad thing, but if you’re going to do this you need to give your characters some pretty strong distinguishing features so that the audience pegs who these people are really quickly and remember them when they recur.  One way to do this is to get an all star cast so that the audience reacts to each person instantaneously through association.  Maybe the people here have a high profile in China and thus accomplish that, but I certainly didn’t recognize them, so a lot of the characters here didn’t really stand out to me outside of perhaps their role in combat, otherwise they were kind of boring.  I don’t know that I can entirely get behind this thing, but as a production it has impressive elements.
*** out of Five

The Wandering Earth (2019)

Almost none of the movies I’m talking about in this series of looks at Chinese Blockbusters made even the slightest bit of money at the box office outside of China.  Most of the movie do get nominal releases in the United States which I think are mostly targeted towards Chinese immigrant and expat communities, but the tactic doesn’t seem to be even close to being as successful as the releases targeting the Indian diaspora here have been.  Generally speaking even the biggest of them have plateaued in the three million range for U.S. box office, even for movies that get decent buzz like Stephen Chow’s The Mermaid (a film that would be in this series if I hadn’t already seen it).  I don’t think distributors are putting their full effort into a lot of these releases by any means, but I doubt they would increase their results by all that much if they did so I can’t say I blame them.  The only movie in the series that did even slightly better at the U.S. box office was the 2019 science fiction epic The Wandering Earth, a movie that made $690 million in China and an additional $10 million internationally, of which almost $6 million came from the U.S. box office.  That’s still chump change, but it’s more than double what Wolf Warrior 2, Operation Red Sea, or Detective Chinatown 2 were able to do.  And there’s an even bigger asterisk on that because the movie was actually picked up by Netflix, who had nothing to do with the film’s production but do license it for streaming to this day and one can imagine that its theatrical release (which was done by a separate company) might have been a touch higher.

None of this is to say The Wandering Earth is actually good, because it very much isn’t.  To its credit the stupid propaganda content is at a minimum beyond the fact that it depicts Chinese heroes saving the world in the way the United States usually saves the world in Hollywood disaster movies, and that seems fair enough.  However the reasons the world was in peril in the first place are bonkers.  The film is set in the “distant future” of… 2061.  Apparently in that forty years it’s discovered that the sun is expanding to the point where it’s going to consume Earth fairly soon, so the world’s solution to this was to build a series of high powered rockets across the planet’s surface which are to be used to propel the earth out of its orbit and actively move it across the solar system until it connects with the nearest other star (Alpha Centari) and join its orbit… yeah, I’m not expert but I’m pretty sure that whole idea breaks every law of physics on the books.  It picks up about seventeen years into this multi-generational mission where humans are now living underground (because the “wandering” does a number on the conditions on the surface) and there’s also a space ship following the mobile planet to help navigate.  Something then goes wrong and the Earth stands the risk of being pulled into Jupiter’s gravitational field and killing everyone, but this may be averted through some effort.

So this is sort of a disaster movie of the Roland Emmerich/Dean Devlin school but one of the Geostrom and Moonfall variety that takes on a premise so ridiculous that it’s kind of a non-starter.  There’s also some Armageddon thrown in there in the way a whole family is swallowed up in this whole disaster scenario (including a family patriarch/astronaut played by the Wolf Warrior himself Wu Jing) and from a technological level it’s also drawing from Gravity in that there are some action scenes set in the vacuum of space and an interest in long and sort of show-offy shots.  The film was made for $50 million, but does look more expensive than that (I’m guessing money goes further in China than in Hollywood) and I would say its production values are indeed impressive though certainly not top of the line.  Director Frant Gwo does display a few solid flourishes and there are some action scenes here that are certainly serviceable, but they aren’t worth seeing the movie in and of themselves and they’re in service of this moronic concept.  Add on a lame comic relief character and you’ve got something pretty lackluster.  That said there are a couple interesting ideas to be found here (I might have wanted to know more about the social order on the Earth surface for one) and it looks like there will be further explorations of this world: The Wandering Earth 2 is due out in January 2023.
** out of Five

Ne Zha (2019)

The history of animation in China is almost certainly a deep subject that I have no real qualifications to talk about with any authority.  As best as I can tell Chinese animation was historically more TV focused, but books could probably be written on the subject and there’s probably a lot I’m overlooking.  However I don’t think I’m talking too far out of turn when I say that for whatever the country’s animated output is it doesn’t have much of a long legacy of exporting their animation to the west, certainly not when compared to the cornucopia of animation coming from their Eastern neighbor Japan.  But as China becomes a bigger film market and tries to expand their domestic film production into more genres that was typically covered by Hollywood that’s becoming less and less true.  There was a “Journey to the West” spinoff called Monkey King: Hero Is Back in 2015, there was a movie called White Snake that they tried to sell to western audiences a couple years ago, and there have also been some odd co-production attempts like Over the Moon.  But the most commercially successful animated movie to come out of the Chinese film industry, by far, is a 2019 film called Ne Zha. This movie grossed $726 million dollars worldwide, which puts it right between Pixar’s Up and F9: The Fast Saga on the all-time charts.

Ne Zha is an irreverent adaptation of the 16th Century Chinese classic “Investiture of the Gods,” a work that isn’t as famous as “Journey to the West” but is nonetheless considered an extremely major work in Chinese literature.  The story here concerns a pair of orbs created by “primordial being,” one of them a demon orb and the other a spirit orb.  And these two orbs fall to earth followed by some other celestial beings that are supposed to keep them in check.  The spirt orb falls into the hands of an (I think evil?) dragon, who fuses it with his son (who appears to be half human?), while the demon orb accidentally fused with the newborn son of two nobles.  This demon child, Ne Zha, then proceeds to get into all sorts of mischief with his powers.  I don’t know anything about this centuries old 650 page work beyond what’s in its brief Wikipedia summery, but it sure doesn’t sound that much like the movie I just watched, so I’m guessing this is either an adaptation of a small sub-plot in the book or it’s even looser an adaptation than it looks like.  I’m guessing that my unfamiliarity with this mythology did affect my watching of this as I’m guessing a lot of the film’s charms come from the way it re-invents familiar myths for its intended audience.  It would be the equivalent of someone watching Disney’s Hercules without any sort of background in Greek mythology.  This is, however, a movie made for children and families so it’s not completely inaccessible.

The film itself is a work of CGI animation that is clearly trying to go head-to-head with the Disney/Pixar/Dreamworks/Etc style.  On a technical level the animation is certainly a few years behind but not dramatically so.  Certain shots are impressive and do some inventive things with action and physical comedy, but other shots look kind of rough.  What translates the worst about it is almost certainly its comedy, which leans towards the scatological at times.  The Ne Zha character can also be a bit abrasive both just in what he is (which is a bit ghastly) and his mannerisms.  I would be lying if I said I was entirely able to keep up with all the mythological shenanigans and related plot developments that happened, some of the rules of this world remained a bit unclear to me.  And some of that piss and fart humor is just a total nonstarter for me.  There are some good bits periodically though so you take the good with the bad.  Ultimately its tonal dissonance wasn’t for me but I can see why through another cultural lens this would be pretty impressive and why it made bank in its home country.
**1/2 out of Five

This will continue in a second part which should come out sometime next month


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