atriotic fervor has seldom been seen by film investors as fertile box-office territory in China’s romance, comedy and fantasy dominated entertainment industry. However, this summer, the Chinese Rambo-style movie Wolf Warrior 2 has smashed the country’s box office records to become the top-grossing domestic film of all time.
Directed by the martial arts expert Wu Jing, who also starred in the lead role, the film raked in more than 5.56 billion yuan (US$850 million) in the month after its July debut. It knocked 1994’s Forrest Gump out of the list of the all-time 100 highest-grossing movies and was also the first non-Hollywood movie to make it into the top 100. The movie is marching to beat Avatar (2009) to become the second-highest-grossing film based on box office sales in a single market.
The movie tells a Hollywood-style story of a former Chinese special forces soldier rescuing Chinese workers and African civilians from a war-torn and plague-ravaged anonymous African country, which has been occupied by local insurgents and Western mercenaries.
Wolf Warrior 2 impresses audiences with the quality of its action scenes, heart-racing stunts and eye-popping special effects. The secret to its box office miracle, as many critics point out, is that it has successfully tapped into audiences’ feelings of patriotism and nationalist pride towards an increasingly self-assured China.
“In fact, the film is just a matchstick,” is a metaphor Wu Jing is particularly fond of when being interviewed. “It’s a little spark that ignites the flames of love deeply rooted in every Chinese for our country.”
For the first time, young moviegoers in China who have consumed tons of Hollywood superhero movies can watch a homemade “superhero” on screen. The lead character, Leng Feng, is not actually a superhuman, but he’s classed as a superhero by audiences, perhaps a little like the way Batman is just a normal man under the cape.
The story has a realistic touch as it is loosely based on several true stories involving military evacuations of Chinese workers from Libya back in 2011 and from Yemen in 2015.
After being dismissed and imprisoned for two years for an assault on a guard over the honor of a deceased fellow soldier, Leng Feng goes to Africa to get to the bottom of the death of his fiancée, who used to be the captain of the special forces team Wolf Warrior.
Leng soon finds himself in the middle of a civil war in the plague-ravaged country, the name of which is not specified in the film. As the local rebel army and war-mongering Western mercenaries take the city and slaughter the civilians, Leng becomes a one-man rescue team to save a group of his compatriots and African employees of a Chinese-owned factory.
Hollywood-style production elements can be recognized in many aspects of the movie. The storyline of one-man-rescues-the-innocents can be found in endless Hollywood action and war movies. The protagonist Leng Feng is also in the shape of Western character like James Bond or Steve Rogers, who is deeply patriotic and willing to fight to the death for his country’s honor, no matter how much he himself has been wronged.
Overseen by stunt coordinator Sam Hargrave, who worked on Captain America: Civil War and Atomic Blonde, Wolf Warrior 2 is widely acclaimed for the quality of its special effects, stunts, explosion and action scenes worthy of Hollywood. The intense fight scenes range from an underwater martial arts brawl with pirates at the start of the film, to the street gunfights with African insurgents in the middle and finally to a tank battle with European mercenaries towards its climax.
The movie rides a wave of patriotic fervor, as numerous moviegoers took to social media to heap praise on it.
“It feels so great to finally watch an individual hero in a Chinese mainstream film,” says a user on Weibo, China’s equivalent of Twitter.
“You seldom see such a confident China in today’s domestic movies. Its success does not rely on Hollywood-style special effects, pretty boys or affected lines. It no longer hides the violence and faithfully depicts the cruelty of war in front of audiences. The real action scenes, fast-paced plots, popcorn-style jokes and the impressive battles of missiles, tanks and cruisers – you will be amazed by the ambition of Wu Jing. Although it’s still immature in many ways compared to Hollywood movies, as a domestic movie, it deserves all the praise,” Weibo user “Lanjue Yoyo” tweeted, gathering 4,078 likes.
Wu Jing told NewsChina that the last scene, involving a passport, is his favorite of the total 4,007 shots. The film ends with an image of a Chinese passport with a message scrawled across the back: “Citizens of the People’s Republic of China, if you encounter danger overseas, do not give up! Please remember, right behind you, there is a powerful motherland!”
“That’s the very thing I want to express,” said Wu. He told our reporter that in the past he had encountered lots of unfair treatment and been asked offensive questions when applying for visas ever since he first went abroad in 1986. “I’ve always waited for a time when China becomes a strong country and the Chinese passport becomes powerful. Now the time has come,” Wu said proudly.
He repeatedly emphasizes in front of media that the secret of the film’s incredible box office takings lies in Chinese people’s love and pride for an increasingly strong motherland.
“The love of the homeland runs deeply in the veins of every Chinese. The strong sentiment, just like a bunch of thoroughly tanned dry wood, can leap into a blaze with a tiny spark of fire. I just strike a match and toss it into the wood, and the passion within everyone has been wildly ignited,” Wu told The Beijing News.
Patriotism and national confidence, a key message of the film, also sparked controversy. Many commentators criticized the film’s unrealistic exaggeration of the protagonist Leng Feng’s abilities. Many pointed out that such a one-man-saves-the-world kind of superhero is too invulnerable to be real.
The famous film critic “Daqihupi” described the film as “a bottle of national energy drink.” Some criticized that the film takes advantage of rising nationalism among the young and call the film “doing patriotic business.”
In a press conference on August 17, Wu Jing retaliated by saying some audiences have double standards: they say nothing against those unbreakable superheroes in countless Hollywood movies, but find fault with a strong, ethnically Chinese hero.
“An American hero defeats a whole division by himself without getting a single injury, yet nobody questions that. But if it is a Chinese soldier who defeats a couple of mercenaries and survives, some say it’s impossible. How come he has to die?” Wu said.
With regard to the controversy over the movie’s nationalistic message, Wu responded, “It’s totally fine if people have different opinions towards the art of my work. But I don’t understand why the expression of patriotism is a target of criticism. There is nothing wrong with being patriotic and loving my country.”
Many industry insiders and scholars argue that in various ways Wolf Warrior 2 can be regarded as a milestone in Chinese film history, and that is not merely because of its box office miracle.
Industry observers claim that the huge success of Wolf Warrior 2 could be calling time on the recent craze for the “IP + Stars” filmmaking mode among Chinese financiers and film producers. IP (or intellectual property) refers to adaptation rights for existing books, web novels and games.
In the past few years, film investors and producers have relied too much on the “fans economy,” leaning more on stars names, good looks and popular IP works instead of good acting and original scriptwriting. Popular pulp fiction and superstars with a huge fan base – usually young and pretty but not necessarily experienced in acting – are seen as two safe guarantees for box office takings.
Alibaba Pictures’ fantasy romance Once Upon a Time, Wolf Warrior 2’s biggest domestic contender, follows the typical “IP + Stars” model as it is adapted from Chinese web novelist Tang Qi’s popular novel Three Lives, Three Worlds, Ten Miles of Peach Blossoms and stars Yang Yang and Liu Yifei, two young starlets with legions of fans.
The State-backed The Founding of an Army, another major rival to Wolf Warrior 2 at its release time was produced to celebrate the 90th anniversary of the People’s Liberation Army, and features 50 famous Chinese pop stars.
Without superstars or IP familiarity to rely on, Wolf Warrior 2 with its original screenplay raked in over 10 times as much money at the box office as Once Upon a Time and fifteen times as much as The Founding of an Army.
“The ‘IP + Stars’ films are made more for fans than for audiences. If you go to a cinema to watch Once Upon a Time, you will probably hear female viewers’ scream every time Yang Yang’s face appears on screen. That’s more like joining a fan meeting than watching a film,” film industry observer Mo Liu told our reporter.
“The success of Wolf Warrior 2 signifies that the golden age of the ‘IP + Stars’ model has gone. It points out how to make a Chinese blockbuster,” Mo added.
In an article “Wolf Warrior 2, Captain China in the De-globalization Era,” Xue Jing, scholar and cultural analyst at the Chinese department at Peking University, points out that the significance of Wolf Warrior 2 lies in its reconstruction of the narrative of Chinese patriotic movies – it shifts from the “narrative of the weak” to the “narrative of the strong.”
Xue indicates that collective memories of national traumas since the 1840 Opium War, along with narratives such as “sick man of East Asia,” “lagging behind leaves one vulnerable to attacks,” informed the Chinese national identity during the course of the formation of modern China.
In traditional mainstream patriotic movies, China is usually portrayed as a war-torn country that is being wronged, bullied and shamed, and Chinese characters are dying to fight for her honor. Thus, Xue argues, most of these movies follow the “tragic heroism” and “identity of the weak” tropes.
Yet the traditional narrative of tragic heroism has gradually lost its ground among the younger generations, who harbor strong confidence in their increasingly powerful country.
“The Wolf Warrior series attempts to reconstruct a new collective national imagination. Its context has changed from ‘used to be the weak’ to ‘already being the strong.’ The film’s depiction of African civilians under attack in a war-torn region evokes audiences’ similar memories of the past China as a weak, victimized country. However, the camera shifts to the young Chinese factory owner giving a clear promise of rescuing all his African employees, and the scene brings audiences back to the reality that China has already become a strong country. The cinematic juxtaposition of a strong us [Chinese] saving a past weak ‘us’ [Africans] completes the shift from ‘the identity of the weak’ to ‘the identity of the strong’,” Xue wrote.
Thus Xue believes the meaning of Wolf Warrior 2 is not copying Hollywood and presenting a black-eyed, Chinese (“yellow-skinned” in Xue’s words) superhero, but it “creates” a new cinematic imagination of China.
Yin Hong, professor of the School of Journalism and Communication at Tsinghua University, argues that one breakthrough that Wolf Warrior 2 has made lies in its creative attempt to adapt Hollywood-style individualistic heroism into Chinese collectivistic values.
“One man versus an unjust order – the idea is the same as that articulated in countless Hollywood war and action films, just like First Blood and James Bond series. The heroism culminates when an individual wins the final battle with an unbeatable evil force. Beneath Wolf Warrior 2 there is also a very typical Chinese value. Lots of national signs – the national emblem, national flag and the passport – appear in the film. This is a Chinese reformation of Hollywood-style action movies,” Yin told The Beijing Evening News.
Yin also pointed out that some elements in Wolf Warrior 2 have impeded it from going global. “Its overemphasis on nationalism, an inhumane depiction of death, and the suffocating density of violence would more or less harm its artistic value, but these elements in turn serve as a catalyst to boost the domestic box office,” Yin said.