China releases its Wolf Warrior propagandists on the cinema
The move is a sign of the growing divide between Chinese and Western cinema, which experts say echoes a wider divergence between China and the United States.
As the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) celebrates 100 years in power, President Xi Jinping and his colleagues are trying to promote the image of a more assertive China capable of taking on Washington on the world stage.
In movie theaters, this means serving action films that are nationally made and tailored to the party’s own message.
For example, while Western audiences flocked last year to see Daniel Craig’s latest James Bond outing, No Time to Die, people in China were much more excited about The Battle of Changjin Lake.
A propaganda film commissioned by party leaders to celebrate the CCP’s centenary, it was the most expensive film ever produced in China, with a budget of $200 million, and the most successful at the box office, with more than $900 million.
The plot follows Chinese soldiers as they drive American troops out of North Korea during the Korean War in 1950, promoting themes of solidarity and shared sacrifice. After proving to be an unexpected success, it was followed by a sequel of the same name in February this year which has so far grossed over $600 million.
And it was by no means an isolated success. Previously, one of the highest-grossing Chinese movies on the mainland was Wolf Warrior, a chauvinistic action flick that depicts an elite People’s Liberation Army soldier taking down a nefarious group of mercenaries led by a former US Navy SEAL.
Directed by and performed by martial arts master Wu Jing, who co-starred with Jackie Chan, the 2015 film’s not-so-subtle tagline warns: “Those who offend China will be punished wherever they are.”
A globetrotting sequel followed in 2017 and another, yet to be released, sequel was announced for production.
Meanwhile, there are even Chinese equivalents of Top Gun, with 2017’s Sky Hunter and 2018’s Operation Red Sea featuring their own daring fighter pilots as they battle to rescue Chinese hostages or stop directed missiles. in a threatening manner against Beijing by foreign adversaries.
Professor Chris Berry, an expert on Chinese cinema at King’s College London, says this genre of patriotic films is on the rise, with different and sometimes competing ideas about what modern China represents.
The hero of Wolf Warrior – a soldier named “Cold Front” who quits the military because his sense of justice is too extreme for the military – is a fearless maverick, who puts conniving Western villains in their place in shooting them or defeating them in hand-to-hand combat.
Meanwhile, The Battle of Changjin Lake is a historical film that has more in common with traditional communist propaganda films, albeit updated for the modern era.
“Wolf Warrior, although somewhat chauvinistic, is about China as a world power and Chinese people playing roles all over the world in a new century, while in Changjin Lake it is more about ‘a return to a Cold War dynamic of China and its allies, such as North Korea, against the West,’ explains Berry.