How Cinematic Heroes Reflect a New, Assertive China

A slew of hyper-nationalist protagonists help project the country’s strength, modernity, and supposed collective spirit.

Still frames from the film ‘Wolf Warrior 2’ (left) and ‘Operation Mekong’ (right)

Last year, the bombastic military romp “Wolf Warrior 2” became China’s highest-grossing movie of all time, raking in 5.68 billion yuan ($900 million) in box office sales. Its remarkable success heralded the rise of a new style of mainstream Chinese film: heroic individual stories that nonetheless appeal to the supposed superiority of the national collective.

Striking a similar note, the explosive gangster film “Operation Mekong” opened in cinemas in October 2016 and made 1.18 billion yuan at the box office. Based on the true story of 13 Chinese sailors killed on the Mekong River in 2011, the movie shows the Chinese special forces, armed to the teeth with the latest weaponry, crossing national borders to catch an international drug trafficker. Behind the film’s slickly produced action scenes, the core value of defending the lives of Chinese citizens is never far away.

“Wolf Warrior 2” and “Operation Mekong” both feature the well-worn Hollywood trope of a lonesome individual hero who nonetheless bears an important moral message about protecting human lives. But while Hollywood blockbusters often push these supposedly universal values as a means to reflect critically upon war, Chinese military movies are built upon the highly nationalistic notion of self-sacrifice for the perceived interests of one’s country. Their plotlines — in which Chinese heroes take the initiative, fight beyond the country’s borders, and mete out justice to those who threaten innocent victims — depict China as a powerful nation on the rise.

On top of that, today’s popular Chinese movies and TV shows often portray the country’s people as “modern” and “civilized.” This trend has been visible in domestic television series for a number of years, but has recently been lent more weight as domestic blockbusters seek to contrast Chinese characters with their supposedly backward and exotic African or Southeast Asian counterparts.

Jackie Chan’s 2015 movie “Dragon Blade” is a further display of Chinese modernity. China’s history as a nation subdued and partially conquered by Western imperial powers gave rise to a deep sense of national shame, much of which manifested in portrayals of China as an ignorant, backward country. For a long time, Chinese filmmakers narrated the national story from a position of weakness, using pathos to convey the humiliation of being brought to heel by Western nations. “Dragon Blade,” meanwhile, smartly combines a costume drama with the national “One Belt, One Road” strategy to expand trade infrastructure along the former Silk Road. The film features a showdown between Chan, who plays a village official in charge of maintaining trade links between China and its Central Asian neighbors, and the corrupt Roman leader Tiberius, who seeks to claim the lands along the Silk Road for Rome. Chan’s eventual success in restoring peace and harmony to a region where war seems imminent is meant to show the country’s tolerance toward Western culture, even as a self-confident China rebuffs invaders intent on stymieing its economic rise.

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The three abovementioned movies capture China’s current sociopolitical mood, one that is steeped in statism, nationalism, and industrialism. As rapid economic development helps millions of people attain levels of wealth and status approaching those of the West, some have begun to overturn society’s centuries-old denial of traditional values and come to see the so-called Chinese system as a viable alternative. Both consciously and unconsciously, popular art, film, and literature have started to express this return to great-nation status and depict China as an ultramodern entity.

Today’s Chinese filmmakers are also more accommodating of the political structures that have facilitated China’s rise. In the 1980s, film was often used as a medium to express satire, criticism, or disillusionment of or with the state apparatus, and call for a radical overhaul of the political system. Today, however, movies and TV shows are more likely to hint at a tacit acceptance of, if not open desire for, government-driven social change. Much of this revolves around encouraging the authorities to eliminate corruption and create social order through clean government.

For example, the 2014 hit spy drama “All Quiet in Peking” departs from the well-traveled path of narrating the battles between the Nationalist and Communist factions in the 1940s prior to China’s reunification under the Communist Party in 1949. Instead, it depicts purges of corrupt officials within the Nationalist Party itself. Despite the fact that many characters in the show have ostensibly backed the wrong horse, many upstanding Nationalist officials are presented as loyal to their leaders and firm defenders of party and state interests. The film’s historical storyline can be interpreted as approval for the Communist Party’s ongoing anti-corruption campaign.

But by far the most outstanding anti-corruption piece of 2017 was “In the Name of the People,” an unprecedented show that shines a voyeuristic light on intra-Party graft and intrigue. Its embrace of realism and complexity highlights the extensive social networking and back-scratching that goes on within the Communist Party’s upper echelons. A subplot about a group of factory stakeholders who resist governmental reform in order to protect their interests casts “the people” not as voiceless underlings in need of state protection, but as assertive citizens who yearn for dignified lives under the rule of law. In the end, the scandals are resolved thanks to the emergence of a less corrupt, more powerful leader.

Since the turn of the century, China’s continuing economic rise has made its people conceive of their nation not as primitive and backward, but as highly developed and modern. This powerful, prosperous self-portrait is now coming through in a number of popular and domestically acclaimed movies and TV shows, most of which illustrate both an awareness of ongoing social issues and a growing faith in the state to resolve them.

Translator: Clemens Ruben; editors: Wu Haiyun and Matthew Walsh.


–This article originally appears on Sixth Tone