[This is part two of a two-part series looking at modern box office blockbusters in China, Part 1 can be found here]
Wolf Warrior II (2017)
It’s been about two months since I saw the first Wolf Warrior, which was in many ways a movie I rather stubbornly watched just so that I could then watch this sequel, which is the one that really matters from a cultural and perhaps more importantly from a business perspective. The first movie was a modest hit, but this sequel was a phenomenon, one that made almost ten times as much money as its predecessor. Having raked in $870 million dollars at the international box office this was at the time the highest grossing Chinese movie and by extension the highest grossing non-English language movie ever made. It’s since been surpassed by at least one movie (we’ll be getting to that one) but as of today it still sits at number 78 on the ranking of highest grossing films worldwide right between Batman V. Superman: Dawn of Justice and Star Wars Episode III- Revenge of the Sith. More importantly than how much it made was when it made it. Prior to 2017 there were some signs of how big Chinese productions could get, like Stephen Chow’s The Mermaid which broke the $500 million mark, but this one really blew the doors down and after that it was really off to the races with China producing a string of movies that would approach similarly lofty numbers. That’s all pretty impressive but it is also quite odd. This was certainly a movie of larger ambitions and a larger budget than its predecessor, but it was at its heart still basically an unpretentious action movie made for just $30 million, which is not exactly a shoestring budget but by Hollywood standards it’s not much.
The film clearly exists within the same continuity as Wolf Warrior but references to that earlier film are mostly kept to a minimum. Here Leng Feng is no longer a member of the military but is working as a mercenary and his adventures bring him to an unnamed African nation where he happens to be right when rebels start staging a coup that he finds himself in the middle of. The exact politics and motivations of the rebel army is pretty hazy, as are their various evil plans, which seem to involve kidnapping a Chinese scientist who has developed a vaccine for a plague that’s going around in the country. The film also once again has much of the trouble coming from a team of villainous international mercenaries led by an American, this time played by Frank Grillo (who was reportedly recommended to Wu Jing by the Russo Brothers, who he consulted with). Where the first Wolf Warrior had some silliness to it, it did still basically try to keep one foot in the world of realism and the trappings of its military milieu and wanted to make the Chinese army specifically look cool and badass and it generally took itself a little more seriously in that regard. This one is a lot bigger and more outlandish. It’s not quite to the level of something like The Fast and the Furious franchise, but it’s getting there.
The focus this time is less on the army, which our hero is no longer technically part of though they definitely assist at key points, than on Leng Feng specifically as something of an avatar for Chinese heroism writ large. Additionally the film’s African setting was likely responding to something of a call for films that would promote China’s Belt and Road initiative, a wide ranging soft power play that the CCP was and is undertaking in which they invest in infrastructure in the developing world. Not everyone in China is thrilled about seeing their tax money going to such an effort so there’s an effort being made by the government to sell it to the populous. The film’s depiction of Africa and its people is certainly not very authentic and borders on the condescending in a lot of ways, but there is a reason it’s going out of its way to make the plight of the Africans one and the same with the plight of the Chinese. The Frank Grillo character, by contrast is an avatar for Western racism, power hunger, and arrogance. The film ends with him telling Feng that he (and by extension the Chinese) will always be inferior, only to have the tables turn on him and have Feng respond to this attitude with “that’s fucking history” right before delivering the killing blow in traditional action hero form. Then the movie ends with title cards literally reading “To the citizens of the People’s Republic of China: When you find yourself in danger in a foreign country, never give up hope. China’s strength will always support you.” Subtle.
This brand of pandering patriotism is almost certainly a big part of why the film proved so successful. As an action movie unto itself Wolf Warrior 2 is at best merely okay but it managed to find a way to deliver party approved patriotism but do it in a very Hollywood style of flag waving action heroism rather than the stayed historical re-enactments the industry usually used for this kind of content. In fact that may have been something of a double edged sword for Wu Jing as it would seem that the powers that be in China had somewhat mixed feelings about the film’s success. Despite the film having a post-credits stinger there has not yet been a Wolf Warrior 3 and I’ve heard it is because the cultural ministry has in fact rejected a screenplay for the sequel that was submitted. I think this is because for all his patriotism, the character of Leng Feng still has some of that “rogue action hero who plays by his own rules” to him and this movie rather notably seems more interested in boosting him as an individual hero than making him part of a team. By contrast Operation Red Sea, which came out the next year and is probably a superior action movie generally, is more about a team effort in a conflict and I suspect that’s closer to the message the party wants to send.
**1/2 out of Five
Detective Chinatown 2 (2018)
Like with Wolf Warrior 2, Detective Chinatown 2 was a sequel that leveraged the rapidly increased power of the Chinese box office in order to make the follow-up to a moderate hit into an unprecedented blockbuster. This movie made $544 million worldwide. To put that in perspective that’s more than twice as much as Borat made worldwide and it did it more or less in just one market. The film hues pretty close to the first Detective Chinatown to the point of almost following a formula and in a lot of ways I probably could have stuck with that first movie and gotten the gist of what the whole series had to offer but there were two key differences here. Firstly, the film has a noticeably much larger budget which allows them to film in various landmarks that I would have thought difficult to book and lets them play a Taylor Swift song over several scenes. More importantly, and what made me particularly interested in seeing this one; unlike the Thailand set first film this one was set in New York City, giving me insight into what a major American city looks like when viewed through a (heightened) foreign lens. The film picks up a few months after the first leaves off. Qin Feng has been going to college but during some time off has come to New York, where a bunch of similar amateur detectives have been assembled by an eccentric Chinatown millionaire who has put up a reward for the person who finds the person who killed his grandson, who may have been murdered by a serial killer who is harvesting people’s organs. But his crazy “uncle” is waiting for him when he gets to the airport and sort of tags along with him the whole time for unclear reasons.
Now, before we get too judgmental, I will say that Hollywood has a long history of making movies in foreign countries that look at said countries with an inauthentic tourist’s eye the emphasize dumb stereotypes in ways non-local audience are perhaps a bit blind to. This can go both ways however and the New York here is pretty bizarre. Some of this is likely intentional; the people making this would likely be the first people to say this was not supposed to be a realistic travelogue and instead bartered in comedic exaggeration but, man… In this movie New York is filled with homosexual biker gangs (homophobia seems to be a problem in this whole series), there’s an absurd number of guns, and the police chief is played by a Donald Trump impersonator. I can laugh off a lot of this (which is a privilege that many of the countries Hollywood shoots in don’t necessarily have), but the one thing that was pretty consistently jarring was how little the film knew how to deal with African American characters and a strange scene where a character is teaching what appears to be a gun toting inner city gang was… not cool. I’d call all of this a flaw but the truth is that it probably made the movie more interesting for me, albeit unintentionally, than it would have otherwise. Beyond all that, eh, the comedy doesn’t really translate. I think I chuckled twice and the story can’t really stand on its own otherwise.
** out of Five
The Eight Hundred (2020)
With their film The Eight Hundred China seemingly did the impossible. For the first time ever the number one film at the worldwide box office was not an English language film made with Hollywood money and was instead a film from The People’s Republic of China. Of course that achievement comes with the mother of all asterisks: it happened in 2020, the year most of the world’s theaters were closed for business. In fact the second highest grossing film of that year was also an Asian production, the Japanese anime blockbuster Demon Slayer the Movie: Mugen Train (though different sources seem to favor that later film, not sure what’s going on there), and even with all the advantages both of these movies had their $461 million and $447 million takes was still wasn’t that much more than the $426 million that Hollywood’s one pre-pandemic hit Bad Boys for Life managed to bring in. Still, a number one is a number one and this accomplishment will still be in the history books forever as one point for Team China over Team Hollywood in the epic battle for the future of worldwide movie-going. Interestingly the movie that did this was arguably a bit of a step back in terms of the content that was gaining popularity in that country. Previously the big narrative about the Chinese box office was that they had been taking notes from Hollywood and were starting to move away from the tired patriotic historical war movies and toward fresh patriotic contemporary and fantasy movies. The Eight Hundred, though made with very modern production values, is very much a World War II movie interested in highlighting a patriotic war achievement and sounds a lot like the kind of thing people were sick of being fed by the CCP for years. So I was prepared for a pretty dumb propaganda movie, and while that element is there I was actually surprised to find this thing to actually be pretty good.
The film is a dramatization of the defense of the Sihang Warehouse, an event that occurred late during Japan’s 1937 invasion of Shanghai during the second Sino-Japanese War. By the time the film starts the Japanese had already basically won the battle and overwhelmed the city outside of a few foreign concession-zones occupied by foreign powers that the Japanese could not attack lest they provoke those countries into the war. Late in the battle remaining Chinese forces held up in a warehouse that was right across the river from one of these concession-zones, meaning that the Japanese could not simply carpet bomb the location, and proceeded to engage in a last stand in the vein of The Alamo or Thermopylae. The idea being that such a defense would boost the morale of the rest of the Chinese forces and also because this whole spectacle was playing out in full view of the foreigners across the river it would boost international sympathy for China’s plight. There were actually only a little over four hundred soldiers in that warehouse, but the numbers got inflated to eight hundred as misinformation to the enemy and the name and legend stuck.
So, it’s not too hard to see how this could be a story that would be turned into a pretty chest beating bit of flag waving, but perhaps deservedly. I’ve done some cursory research into this battle and it does appear to be a legitimately impressive bit of military history that doesn’t require too much embellishment to work as a story about the “glories of the Chinese spirit” and while there are a couple of scenes here that seem to been added to impress the CCP the film is mostly just guilty of some standard issue Hollywood style creative license. In fact it may well have been a little too patriotic for the Chinese censors. As it turns out, China actually has somewhat mixed feelings about this historical event in large part because the soldiers doing this glorious defense are not necessarily “good communists” but are instead members of Chiang Kai-shek’s Kuomintang Army. The CCP line on this military is that it was basically crushed by the Japanese, not because of any failings of the Chinese people but because of “class oppression within the ranks… the misdeeds of its officers and its evil oppression of the people,” so glorifying one of the few “glorious” achievements of this army has not necessarily been in the party’s interest, which is probably why the only two previous films about this incident were 1938’s 800 Heroes (made as wartime propaganda just a year after the events) and 1977’s Eight Hundred Heroes, which was actually made in Taiwan, a country which for obvious reasons is much more proud of Chiang Kai-shek’s army.
These ideological concerns actually did get this, a movie that to outside observers looks like pure propaganda, into trouble. An organization called the “Chinese Red Culture Research Association” heavily criticized the film for its depiction of the Chiang Kai-shek’s army and the Republic of China’s flag (which is heavily featured in a scene where the soldiers try to keep it flying while under fire from a Japanese airplane). The film was actually withdrawn from the Shanghai Film Festival right before it was supposed to premiere in 2019 and thirteen minutes were cut from it (no clue what was taken out) and would only finally come out a year later (which turned out to be a year with clear box office disadvantages). Despite all that the movie appears to have rebounded and become a major blockbuster and that’s because it’s a pretty solid war movie. Director Guan Hu lays out the dynamics of the situation at hand well and stages the various skirmishes of this battle with conviction and the cinematography by Cao Yu is really impressive. Now, I saw that as someone who’s a reasonably big fan of movies that recreate World War II battles, so preferences around these things may vary but I think it’s mostly a worthy entrant in the genre and some of the more nationalistic edges that Chinese blockbusters often barter in do fit better here than they might elsewhere.
***1/2 out of Five
Hi, Mom (2021)
Though they are basically commercial non-entities outside of their home country, almost all the Chinese blockbusters I’ve looked at up to this point have at least gotten nominal U.S. releases. They make very little money and I assume they just played in a few theaters in areas with large ex-pat populations, but they did at least play and can also be found on American streaming services or on physical media. The exception to this is Hi, Mom, a 2021 movie in which a woman seemingly travels back in time to the early eighties and meets her mother. As far as I can tell this movie has never had any kind of release in the entire Western Hemisphere outside of a single festival appearance in Italy, meaning that in order to watch it for this I needed to track down a not-so-legal copy of it on the third rate streaming side Dailymotion. So, full disclosure, this may have affected my viewing. This domestic-only release may have been because the film was not originally expected to have seen anything near the success it eventually did. The film was a sleeper hit that grew to be a massive success because of word-of-mouth, out-grossing Detective Chinatown 3 when it opened last year to become the third highest grossing movie at the worldwide box office in 2021, the third highest grossing Chinese movie ever, and to this date it holds the record for being the highest grossing movie ever to be directed by a solo female filmmaker. That filmmaker was the comedian Jia Ling, who also wrote and starred in the film after becoming something of a celebrity through various TV sketch comedy appearances. This was actually her directorial debut and it appears to have been rooted in some very personal experiences so you can tell this was the moment where she really wanted to cash in her public clout and it seems to have paid off spectacularly for her.
Though the film is a comedy of sorts, it’s rooted in a rather painful aspect of Jia Ling’s life. She lost her mother at the age of eighteen in 2001 in an accident and felt like she hadn’t “made her proud” and in this movie she envisions a woman who also experiences a loss like this in 2001, but then she imagines this woman through some vague unexplained magic being able to travel back in time to 1981 (the year before she was born) and interacting with her mother when she was the same age. To the western viewer that basic concept instantly reminds you of Robert Zemeckis’ 1985 classic Back to the Future, which also had its teenage protagonist going back to a sentimentalized time in its country’s history to interact with a younger version of their parents and gaining some new understanding of them as a result. However, there are some pretty profound differences between the two movies. For one, Back to the Future is much more interested in the mechanics of time travel and becomes something of a thriller in which Marty McFly is rushing all over the place to prevent dangerous time paradoxes. China’s censors actually have something of a history of frowning on the very concept of time travel for… reasons (something about believing that if people can change the past they’ll start thinking too hard about changing the present), so this movie simply presents time travel as a magical realist conceit, a means to an ends that isn’t taken too seriously and (spoiler) is ultimately proven to just be a dream.
But the more profound difference between the two movies are the character motivations. Where Marty McFly spends much of the second half of Back to the Future desperately trying to make sure that his mother still ends up with his father in order to preserve his own status quo, the protagonist of Hi, Mom does the opposite. She is so consumed with guilt and self-loathing that she tries to actively break up her father and mother in the past so that her mother would marry a richer man, making her more happy and (presumably) eventually giving birth to a child (and only one child, of course) who will make her more proud than the protagonist did. That’s kind of a dark concept that the film dilutes a bit by not making the cause and effect of the protagonist’s actions as palpable as they were in Back to the Future (she does not, for instance, start to disappear as the timeline becomes corrupted). Whole papers could probably be written about the differences in the Chinese and American outlook on life by comparing this aspect of these two movies, though Hi Mom does not ultimately endorse its protagonist’s outlook on herself and the movie does ultimately have a cathartic and self-esteem affirming ending that even Hallmark would probably approve of.
So why did this become such a smash success? Well, a lot of reasons. For one, the film is engaging in 80s nostalgia in a way that is very timely to a Chinese audience. The Youtuber Accented Cinema argues that this era and milieu of Chinese history used to feel very quaint and old fashioned to Chinese millennials raised on foreign influences from the United States and Japan have recently begun to re-evaluate this older era of their parents for its Chinese purity. But perhaps the even bigger reason for its success was the pandemic, which kept a lot of Chinese migrants separated from their families in rural regions for extended periods of time and there was a sort of overwhelming catharsis in seeing a movie like this which has a gooey and affirming message about the yearning for family reunification and it really had people weeping in the theaters. Looking at the movie as an outsider I’m a little more on the outside when it comes to the movie’s nostalgia and humor, and there are other decisions here like Jia Ling’s decision to cast herself (a 38-year-old old woman) as an eighteen-year-old teenager that seems a bit strange. It’s not a movie for me, either culturally or just in terms of what my taste tends toward, but I see the appeal. In fact of all the movies I’ve looked at for my series on Chinese blockbusters this is the only one I can imagine Hollywood trying to do a remake of.
*** out of Five
The Battle at Lake Changjin (2021)
In my review of The Eight Hundred I noted that that movie marked the first and only time that the highest grossing film at the worldwide box office was made outside of Hollywood, but we came within an inch of that happening in 2021 too. Up until December of that year China’s historical epic The Battle at Lake Changjin stood at the top of that year’s box office having raked in $902 million dollars almost entirely from the domestic box office of its home country. That makes it the highest grossing Chinese movie ever and by extension the highest grossing non-English language movie of all time. On top of that Hi, Mom was sitting in second place on that same list and Detective Chinatown 3 was also in the top five so China was really in a dominant position… then at the eleventh hour Spider-Man: No Way Home swung in and saved the day for Hollywood, ultimately earning more than a billion dollars more than China’s patriotic war film did. That is a good reminder of the limits of China’s box office numbers: unless they’re able to make movies that people outside their own borders care about they probably won’t be topping charts like that again, at least not without another x-factor like pandemic theater shutdowns giving them a leg up (they don’t appear to have even gotten close this year). But $902 million is nothing to scoff at, what is this movie that managed to score that much cash?
Well, as it turns out The Battle at Lake Changjin is a much different beast than a lot of the other movies I’ve looked at for this series. Where movies like Wolf Warrior, while nationalistic as hell, did represent a different and more Hollywood influenced brand of mainstream Chinese cinema. This one though, this is exactly the kind of government sponsored historical movie commemorating an anniversary that this national cinema was infamous for and which those other films were seen as something of an antidote to. These kinds of movies (among others) are known as “main melody” movies as they express the prevailing themes of the party… in other words they’re straightforward and unashamed propaganda. The exact definition of this “genre” is a bit nebulous so it could probably be used to describe several of the movies I’ve looked at, but it 100% describes this one. The movie was one of several made as a the result of a mandate from the top to make movies about the Korean War, or “The War to Resist US Aggression” as they apparently call it in China as part of a wider interest under Xi Jinping to hold that conflict up as an example of how China is able to defeat those damn imperialist Americans and The Battle at Lake Changjin (known in the west as The Battle of Chosin Reservoir) was seen as their defining success. Of course who won that battle is somewhat in the eye of the beholder: it did force the U.N. forces to retreat and was something of a turning point in the war, but the Chinese did suffer significantly more casualties despite outnumbering their opponents four to one. One nation’s “victory” is another nation’s Thermopylae-esque stand or at least Dunkirk-esque escape, but the truth is that there wasn’t a lot of glory to be found on this battlefield at all, it was an extremely brutal battle fought in the freezing cold and was absolute hell for all involved.
The film was helmed by not one, not two, but three different filmmakers each with a fairly impressive resume. First there’s Dante Lam, whose work we looked at when discussing Operation Red Sea and seems like a more natural suspect to make a modern war film. His two collaborators are perhaps more surprising to see on a project like this; there’s Tsui Hark, a Hong Kong filmmaker whose probably best known for the Once Upon a Time in China films and other innovative martial arts films, and then (somewhat disappointingly) there’s Chen Kaige. Kaige was a contemporary of Zhang Yimou who is best known for his excellent Palme d’Or winning drama Farewell My Concubine. Despite its international acclaim the Chinese government absolutely hated that movie, which I suspect has something to do why it’s never gotten a Blu-ray release. It seems however that Kaige has gotten back into the good graces of his government, probably by lending his talents to movies like… this.
Make no mistake, this is a very strange and distorted view of history. The movie certainly tries to suggest a degree of authenticity by quoting all sorts of tedious details about what numbered regiments were involved in various aspects of the battle, but the movie distorts the numbers involved in each side and also willfully ignores a lot of obvious context like the fact that the North Koreans were the aggressors in this whole thing or that the U.N. troops eventually recovered and continued the war long after this battle. While the film was largely ignored in the United States these and other distortions did lead to quite a bit of controversy in South Korea, and I would imagine this would be a very strange movie to watch as a Korean because it’s a movie about the Korean War that is basically devoid of onscreen Koreans. The film does not bother to depict any North Korean troops fighting alongside the Chinese or South Korean troops fighting alongside the American troops and it’s also decidedly uninterested in muddying the waters with the fact that America was fighting as part of a U.N. coalition that also included troops from the U.K. and several other countries. Instead the whole conflict is sold entirely as a fight between China and the United States; bringing up the actual Koreans whose country they’re fighting over runs the risk of reminding people that the ultimate legacy of this battle was the protection of the North Korean state, which is… not something to be that proud of. Better to just make it all about “US Aggression” and ignore those pesky little details.
I could try to litigate the historical accuracy of this all day, but there is an actual movie here I’m supposed to be reviewing, what’s the actual appeal of this that sold so many tickets? Well a lot of that is just the sheer size of the production. The film’s final battle scene is legitimately huge, with a whole lot of extras running at each other and there is a scale to it that’s impressive, but hardly unprecedented. There are a couple decent action details here and there, but I would not recommend this to most people just as a spectacle (granted, I had to watch it on a laptop monitor given that it isn’t streaming anywhere in this country). I also certainly wouldn’t recommend it as a character piece as this is another one of those ensemble war movies, which is a genre I can get behind occasionally but the characters here seem particularly weak in part because they seem to have been given very little space to really express any kind of doubts about what they’re doing or even just any serious regrets about the horrors of war. As Chinese war movies go I think The Eight Hundred is superior to this on almost every level, and not just because it’s telling a story where the Chinese are in a more authentically heroic position, on most cinematic levels it’s just a better movie. So there are ways for China to make flag waving war movies that work but this didn’t hit that mark and the fact that audiences still flocked to it I think suggests a little bit of a regression in large scale Chinese cinema.
** out of Five
And with that I’m going to end my journey through contemporary Chinese blockbusters. I think the movies I watch tell something of a story about the rise of this industry but also a somewhat unsettling story about how this industry seemed like it would ease up through western influence only to quickly revert back into even harsher nationalism. In some ways that kind of mirrors misplaced optimism the western world had about China as a whole, who does not seem to have allowed western influence lead them in more democratic directions as many had hoped, rather all the money and success seems to have basically vindicated and increased the popularity of the country’s often regressive regime. And with their increased home grown success they’ve also come to see less and less need for Hollywood. When I first came up with this series I was doing it to get an idea about a market that Hollywood was increasingly pandering to and wanted an idea of what the local tastes they were trying to emulate, but increasingly both Hollywood and America writ large have been going through a slow divorce with the middle kingdom. China is letting fewer and fewer Hollywood movies into their country and are finding increasingly cryptic reason to disallow movies, which has certainly come at the expense of Marvel, who haven’t been allowed into the country since the pandemic. A couple movies still get played over there; this year’s biggest winners seem to be Jurassic World Dominion and The Bad Guys, though only the former broke one hundred million in that market. The thing is China’s homegrown movies have had a rough 2022 as well. Across the board China’s box office is down 35% over last year as the pandemic problems the western world faced in 2020 and 2021 started to hit China harder. So the future of this market is not very clear; maybe the boom is over or maybe it will bounce right back and become more and more dominant.