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Elements of a Chinese blockbuster

In China’s version of an action thriller, Americans are the bad guys

Elements of a Chinese blockbuster

A scene from ‘Wolf Warrior 2’ (China Film Group)

A movie most Americans have never heard of became the second highest-grossing film of all time in a single market last year, earning $874 million in China. Wolf Warrior 2, released July 2017, broke record after record: the highest-grossing Chinese film ever released, the biggest single-day gross for a Chinese movie, and the fastest film to gross more than $500 million in China. Only Star Wars: The Force Awakens beat the action flick by making $936.7 million in North America.

What is Wolf Warrior 2, and what does it say about the appetite of the Chinese moviegoing audience? The patriotic film follows Leng Feng (played by Wu Jing, who also directed the movie), an ex-soldier in the fictional “Wolf Warrior” Chinese special ops team who moves to an African country where he befriends locals and searches for those responsible for kidnapping his fiancée. As rebel forces try to overthrow the government, Chinese nationals evacuate the country, except for Leng, who volunteers to rescue 47 Chinese people trapped in a factory behind rebel lines. He also intends to rescue Dr. Chen, who has found a vaccine for the Ebola-like “Lamanla” virus that plagues the country. 

With his love interest, American doctor Rachel Smith (Celina Jade), watching from the sideline, Leng and two other gun-slinging Chinese nationals battle against murderous Western mercenaries wanting to take the Lamanla cure for themselves. Most of the two-hour film consists of gunfights, explosions, tank chases, hand-to-hand combat, and blood splattering on the camera: It’s a summer blockbuster on steroids with little time spent on character development or meaningful dialogue. The special effects lag far behind American thrillers, yet the stunt work and Wu’s combat skills are impressive.

The story is simple enough: China is good, Westerners are bad, and Africans need saving. We see the Chinese in Africa finding cures to diseases at Chinese-funded hospitals and employing locals at Chinese-owned factories. Even the rebels respect the Chinese: When the Chinese ambassador says “Stand down! We are Chinese! China and Africa are friends,” the rebels allow Leng and civilians to escape to the safety of the Chinese Embassy, and the camera lingers on the Chinese flag. Later, the rebel leader orders the mercenaries not to kill any Chinese, as he considers China a vital ally in his future government. Big Daddy, a mercenary played by American Frank Grillo, responds by slitting his throat.

More Chinese patriotic fervor: Smith notes that U.S. Marines would help get her out of the country, but Leng asks, “Where are they now?” In a final showdown, Big Daddy sneers at Leng, “People like you will always be inferior to people like me. Get used to it.” Leng pummels him to death and responds: “That was [obscenity] history.” 

Leng reaches superhero status with his seeming inability to die. At one point, he stops a shoulder-fired missile with a mattress spring and hurls it to the side. In the final scene, Leng slips the sleeve of a giant Chinese flag over his arm and waves it from a truck to grant African and Chinese survivors safe passage through the war zone to a UN refugee camp.

It felt strange to see a Chinese action hero in the place of Hollywood’s typical gun-toting, American-flag-waving hunks. Rather than offering heavy-handed propaganda honoring historical Chinese Communist figures, Wolf Warrior 2 takes a page out of the Hollywood handbook by focusing on a rogue, highly skilled individual sacrificing his life for his countrymen. Leng’s motives are familiar to American audiences: Save the vulnerable, get the girl, kill the bad guy. But this time, an American is the bad guy.

Jonathan Papish, an author at China Film Insider, told The Guardian that the movie succeeded because it told a narrative Chinese moviegoers wanted to see: “It’s the mentality that the 100 years of oppression from foreign powers is over and we are now in a phase where China can stand on its own feet and defend itself and its citizens. The general population ... is very proud of the role that China can play now.” 

Silencing China’s #MeToo movement:

Graduate student Ren Liping, who alleges she was raped by her ex-boyfriend at a Chinese university, sought redress through campus administrators, local police, the legal system, and public protests, to no avail, the Associated Press reported. In response, authorities blocked her from leaving her dorm, monitored her movements, and detained her for six days.