Mapping Contemporary Cinema

Short guide to the contemporary Chinese nationalist blockbuster

In 2017, Wu Jing’s Wolf Warrior 2 (Zhan lang 2) took China’s box-office by storm, earning over $800m within a month of release. At the time of writing, the film remains the highest grossing film in China ever. Part of a cycle of adrenaline-fueled, militaristic, big-budget action films, including Operation Mekong (Mei Gong he xing dong, 2016), Extraordinary Mission (Fei fan ren wu, 2017) and Operation Red Sea (Hong hai xing dong, 2018), the film tells the story of a reluctant ex-soldier who loses interest in life when he is discharged from the Chinese military. Leng Feng (Wu Jing) wanders the world, eventually settling in Africa. But unbeknownst to him, US mercenaries are staging a coup with anti-government rebels. Leng must reprise his duties as a soldier and save the day.

In addition to its triumph at the box-office, the film received overwhelmingly positive social media, with audiences responding in particular to Wolf Warrior 2’s boldness in advocating Chinese patriotism (“Wolf Warrior 2: The Nationalist Action Film Storming China”). Many moviegoers said online how they were touched by the film’s patriotic plot, and some were even inspired to enlist in the army. Wolf Warrior 2 certainly sought this kind of response, appealing to the crudest form of nationalist fantasy, with a promotional poster that features the slogan ”Anyone who offends China will be punished”. Commenting on the film’s success, Wu Jing said ”maybe people have kept their patriotism buried for too long. That passion has become somewhat like dry wood, but my movie is like the spark to light it again’’ (qtd. in Ye). In this the film chimes with a widespread state-sanctioned patriotism in the Chinese media in which the mainland government’s role as protector and peacekeeper is celebrated.

Wolf Warrior 2’s protagonist is no different from the cold-blooded Rambo (Sylvester Stallone) in Rambo: First Blood Part 2 (1985). But where Rambo stands alone as an unstoppable force, Leng defeats his enemies with the aid of the Chinese military. In a dramatic scene, Leng transmits a call for help to the navy, resulting in a battleship off the African coast launching an airstrike and eliminating most of the rebels and US mercenaries. Situating the Chinese navy (who cooperated in the making of the film) as the ‘ultimate saviour’, is one of many markers of the film’s unapologetic jingoism. China is also established as an international superpower in Wolf Warrior 2, with the film showing how Africa benefits from increased employment, improved infrastructure and a strong local economy as a result of Chinese investment. Every government unit that makes an appearance, is shown positively, including the Public Security Bureau, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), and the Chinese embassy guards, diplomatic staff and state-trained doctors. Leng is a decorated PLA soldier and the government that he serves is equally honourable and dutiful.

The film is also nationalistic in its display of China’s modern military power. Wide shots depict the Chinese naval fleet escorting African civilians away from the turmoil of war. Kevin Hsu notes that ”the PLA Navy’s thunderous scenes could be clipped straight from a recruiting video: crisp uniforms, swift ships, strong prows”. PLA ground troops are likewise depicted as competent and highly disciplined. Unsurprisingly the Chinese have already developed an honourable reputation in this unnamed African country, everyone from the prime minister to the anti-government rebels fighting Leng, knows of “the Chinese’’ (Hsu). Inside the warzone, the Chinese embassy is also the only one willing to facilitate the evacuation of the African refugees; the other superpowers have fled to preserve national interests. The depiction of a paternalistic relationship between China and Africa is clearly deliberate, considering that the film debuted just a week before the opening of the first PLA overseas base in Djibouti. The film actively encourages the Chinese audience’s sense of pride in their government’s humanitarian efforts to restore a city ravaged by civil war, political chaos, starvation and deadly diseases. And to further underline this point, Wolf Warrior 2 frames a Chinese passport as its final shot. The passport reads ‘’Citizens of the People’s Republic of China: Whenever you are in dangers overseas, don’t give up! Please remember, behind you stands the powerful motherland!’’

In contrast, the West is depicted as militarily, diplomatically, technologically and scientifically inferior. Leng’s American companion, Rachel Smith (Celina Jade), splutters ”I contacted the American embassy, but they haven’t responded!” “How did you contact them?” Leng asks her. “I tweeted at them.” Fortunately the Chinese military isn’t incompetent, nor are they seduced by trivial consumer digital technology, so everyone is saved. The US also provides the film’s antagonist, mercenary leader Big Daddy (Frank Grillo), who fires weapons at innocent civilians, is a war profiteer, and supplies black-market weapons to anti-government rebels. During a climatic tank battle, after Leng flips over Big Daddy’s tank, he crawls out of the wreckage and muses, “I guess the Chinese military aren’t as lame as I thought”. This is followed by a fistfight in which Big Daddy pins Leng to the ground and states “People like you will always be inferior to people like me. Get used to it.’’ Leng then beats Big Daddy to death and replies, “That was history” (Fig.1). These lines of dialogue make for a rather blatant display of Chinese patriotism; the Chinese subtitles of Big Daddy’s monologue translates to ”in this world there are the weak and the strong, and your race will always be the weak’’.

Fig. 1

After earning his victory the wounded Leng stands on a truck, waving the Chinese flag in an image reminiscent of the propaganda posters and socialist realist films of the Mao era (Fig. 2). This comparison is drawn not only on the basis of image composition, but also in the shot’s slow motion, saturated colours of red and blue, ambient score, and Leng’s proclamation: “I am Chinese!”

Fig. 2

Wolf Warrior 2’s overt nationalism is, in part, state funded. The film was co-produced by state-owned and private film companies. The China Film Group Corporation (CFGC) in particular, is a state monopoly that supervises the process of visa administration in film production overseas. The CFGC vetted Wolf Warrior 2’s script and a preliminary review of the finished film. The film also debuted just ahead of the PLA’s 90th founding anniversary, a hugely symbolic event for the country during which the military paraded the Chinese army’s latest arsenal. President Xi Jinping gave a stern speech vowing to fight anyone who attempts to split China, which is reminiscent to some lines of dialogue spoken by Leng.

China has a history of militaristic cinema which dates back long before the mainstream success of Wolf Warrior 2. The closest films in kind were made during Mao’s regime and include Landmine Warfare (Di lei zhan, 1962), Zhang Ga the Soldier Boy (Xiao bing zhang ga, 1963) and Tunnel Warfare (Di dao zhan, 1965). Thse films depict lives in small rural villages during the Sino-Japanese wars (Wu) and are shaped by narratives in which peasant labourers becoming willing patriotic soldiers in order to ward off China’s foreign invaders. The contemporary variant shifts from the home front to China’s more ambitious role in the world. Critic Freddie Wong notes that “[t]he heroic patriotism portrayed in Wolf Warrior 2 coincides with the rise of China as a global economic power. People buy into the thinking that it is finally China’s turn to rule the world after over a century of attacks and humiliation by foreign powers’’ (qtd. in Chow). Wolf Warrior 2 certainly taps a popular feeling of frustration with the West, especially the US, a feeling exacerbated by President Donald Trump’s threats of an anti-Chinese trade war.

Incidentally, Wu Jing also starred in another nationalistic blockbuster, The Wandering Earth (Liu lang di qiu, 2019). In this film the action star brings the patriotic overtones of Wolf Warrior 2 into the sci-fi genre (Fig. 3). The Wandering Earth’s somewhat recycled premise follows Armageddon (1998) and Interstellar (2014) in depicting an international space crisis. However, in this version China is the leading force in the attempt to save the earth. While the film has yet to be released worldwide, initial reviews suggests that it is “brilliantly patriotic but nowhere near as xenophobic and chauvinistic as Wolf Warrior 2” (Li). The Wandering Earth places an emphasis on global collective policy and international cooperation and actively cements “Chinese bravery and perseverance as the bringer of global unity’’ (Cheng).

Fig. 3

In their different ways Wolf Warrior 2 and The Wandering Earth clearly situate China as hegemonic (in one case militarily and economically dominant and belligerent, in the other technologically powerful, cooperative and generous) and their box-office success indicates that audiences are enthusiastic about these kinds of messages. Wu Jing has said his Wolf Warrior films reflect ”the consciousness of a strong country and army’’ in order to show respect towards an ”older generation of soldiers and tell young Chinese that we are valiant” (Yu). His film ends with a post-credit sequence showing Leng’s ex-lover being held captive by American soldiers, gesturing towards a third instalment. However, the Chinese government have expressed concern that the strident nationalism and jingoism expressed in Wolf Warrior 2 and similar films may fuel the divide between East and West and have indicated this kind of film will no longer be funded (Wolf Warrior 3 remains ‘in production’), with the more diplomatic vision of The Wandering Earth seemingly now the preferred option (“Will China Ban ‘Wolf Warrior 3?”).


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Cheng, Chelsea. “‘The Wandering Earth’: China’s Futuristic Blockbuster Rehashes Hollywood-Style Nationalism, Clichés, and Schmaltz”. 21 Feb. 2019. Web. 5 Mar. 2019.

Chow, Vivienne. “Why China’s ‘Wolf Warriors II’ is Enjoying Surprising Success in Hong Kong.” 21 Sept. 2017. Web. 5 Mar. 2019.

Hsu, Kevin. “China Finally Has Its Own Rambo.” Foreign  1 Sept. 2017. Web. 5 Mar. 2019.

Li, Audrey. “What Sci-Fi Blockbuster The Wandering Earth Says About Chinese Values”. South China Morning  16 Feb. 2019. Web. 5 Mar. 2019.

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Ye, Yu Chen. “Exclusive Interview With Wu Jing, Director Of USD150-Million Chinese Blockbuster Wolf Warrior 2.” 3 Aug. 2017. Web. 5 Mar. 2019.

Written by Hon-Lee Poon (2019); Queen Mary, University of London

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Copyright ©2019 Hon-Lee Poon/Mapping Contemporary Cinema

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