How Blockbuster War Movies Capture China’s Changing Nationalism

Now the country’s highest-grossing film ever, ‘Wolf Warrior 2’ merges Hollywood-style thrills with state-sanctioned patriotism.

Directed by and starring former martial artist Wu Jing, “Wolf Warrior 2” has become this year’s box office phenomenon in China. On Aug. 7, less than two weeks after its release, it overtook “The Mermaid” to become the all-time highest-grossing film at the Chinese box office and is breaking its own record every day — reaching 4.5 billion yuan (around $675 million) on Sunday night.

It’s important to note that “Wolf Warrior 2” is not just another commercial success: It also serves as an excellent example to the Chinese film authorities of how to conduct effective propaganda in today’s social environment.

China’s zhu xuanlü dianying, or “main melody films” — that is, the bulk of movies targeted at a domestic audience — are charged with spreading civilized thought, improving social integration, and reflecting state-sanctioned interpretations of historical events. It should come as no surprise, then, that the war genre — with its dualistic, us-versus-them ideology — has played an integral role in furthering such thinking.

Over the years, the ideology of Chinese military cinema has developed alongside the country’s progress. The history of such films can be roughly divided into three peaks. The first — admittedly long — peak occurred between 1949 and 1966, from the establishment of the People’s Republic to the eve of the Cultural Revolution. Researchers often refer to films made during this period as “17-year movies,” of which military films account for a very large proportion. Representative works include “Tunnel Warfare,” “Landmine Warfare,” and “Zhang Ga the Soldier Boy.”

The plots of 17-year movies usually take place in small rural villages during the Sino-Japanese wars, in which peasant laborers fought to defend China against foreign invaders. Soldiers led by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) typically appear in these stories, but most Party cadres hold secondary roles, training the militia rather than fighting battles themselves. The aim of such storylines was to emphasize Mao’s idea of the “people’s revolution” — portraying the events leading up to the establishment of the modern Chinese state as reflecting the natural will of the masses.

The second peak came at the end of the 1980s, as global socialism was hit by the drastic changes in Eastern Europe and the disintegration of the Soviet Union. Within a few years, a wave of domestic military films were released in China, including “The Great Final Battle,” a retrospective trilogy about three key battles between the People’s Liberation Army and the Kuomintang, and “Baise Uprising,” the story of a battle led by former CCP Chairman Deng Xiaoping in his youth.

Instead of lauding the supposed role of the masses in forming the modern Chinese state, military main melody films during this period focus more on the role of great leaders. Behind the blood and thunder of each narrative lies a candid reworking of history, one of great progress punctuated by great hardship, navigated by the steady hands of the benevolent national leadership. Tacitly, the purpose of these films was to show the Party’s determination to maintain governance despite the external shocks of the collapsing socialist bloc.

Over the following years, Chinese military films continued to further this grand narrative, despite its growing obsolescence. As we moved into the new millennium, China’s national power and international status kept improving, and fears that the country might go the same way as Soviet Russia proved to be unfounded. In addition, the late 1990s saw growing commercialization of the Chinese film industry. To today’s audiences, main melody movies from the last century seem outdated and heavy-handed.

Commercialization has been at the heart of Chinese war movies since around 2008, as directors and film industry policymakers have sought to merge mainstream political ideology with entertaining cinema. At the outset, though, these films descended into crude gimmickry, such as inviting a famous Hong Kong director to remake a classic war film, or casting the country’s most popular actors in a war movie. At the same time, both the antiquated narrative style and the unrefined ideological content of yesteryear were left almost intact, bringing only temporary success at the box office before being quickly forgotten by China’s fickle filmgoers.

That’s why “Wolf Warrior 2” is a milestone movie. Despite recent works with similar tropes — such as 2015’s original “Wolf Warrior,” 2016’s “Operation Mekong,” and this year’s “Extraordinary Mission” — none have caused a sensation in quite the same way. The plot of “Wolf Warrior 2” is hardly innovative: After being forced out of the Chinese army, a maverick soldier travels to an unidentified African country to avenge the memory of a lost lover. There, he is caught in a civil war and risks his life to evacuate the Chinese nationals trapped in the country. In the end, he averts a coup, saves his compatriots, and finds new love along the way.

If that doesn’t already remind you of every Hollywood thriller ever made, each scene is bookended by slickly syncopated fight simulations: underwater combat, street fighting, car chases, gunplay, tank battles, and a final hand-to-hand showdown. Dotted among all this glorified violence are dollops of romance, humor, and exotic landscapes, with varying degrees of success. (In one scene, as a group of innocent “African” and Chinese civilians await their doom, they improbably begin to sing “Amazing Grace” together.)

“Wolf Warrior 2” stands closer to “Mission: Impossible” or the James Bond franchise than its main melody counterparts. However, it would be naive to conclude that today’s Chinese filmmakers and their audiences have become completely Americanized. There may only be a few differences between “Wolf Warrior 2” and a Hollywood action blockbuster, but those differences are critical.

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For instance, the film’s hero, Leng Feng, is not another Rambo. If thrown to the ground, Rambo would get back up and find untapped reserves of strength to beat his enemies; Leng Feng, on the other hand, records a scene of slaughter on his smartphone and transmits it back to the Chinese military, convincing them to launch a counterattack from a destroyer sailing off the coast of Africa. The ship’s cruise missiles then end the battle in less than a minute from hundreds of miles away. Moreover, it is made clear that this destroyer is just one vessel among many in a Chinese naval escort fleet that goes on to rescue thousands of people from the turmoil of war.

Just in case the message isn’t clear enough, at the end of the movie, an image of a Chinese passport appears on the big screen with subtitles underneath:

Citizen of the People’s Republic of China:
Whenever you are in danger overseas,
don’t give up!
Please remember:
Behind you
stands the powerful motherland!

This motif captures the newest form of state-sanctioned patriotism in Chinese society: leveraging the supposed greatness of the Chinese army, as well as the legitimacy of the Communist Party and the Chinese government, as a peacekeeper and protector both at home and abroad.

The box office figures imply that such propaganda has been widely accepted. When I suggested this to the movie’s director, Wu Jing, in an interview, he 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.”

The film is certainly a curious amalgam of different themes. Our heroic protagonist wins the day with precision-guided missiles. Individualism exists, but only to serve the unified needs of the collective. Sensory stimuli go hand in hand with nationalist sermonizing. It might seem odd, but it is also today’s China in a nutshell.


— A version of this article originally appeared on Sixth Tone.