Picture a movie about an elite team of navy commandos on a perilous rescue mission in Yemen. The commandos are straight out of central casting — young, attractive and fit. Their enemy is a sinister group of Islamic terrorists. In battle, the commandos’ tactics and courage overwhelm the hordes of terrorists, who all die unceremoniously in nameless heaps.
But this isn’t an American movie — it’s Operation Red Sea, a major Chinese blockbuster available on Netflix.
America, with its countless pro-military movies like Act of Valor, Top Gun, and Lone Survivor, is no stranger to the art of selling military nationalism through slick film productions. These Chinese movies are simply the modern Chinese equivalent, selling a new and robust Chinese vision.
A common theme in modern Chinese military movies is the country’s increasing prowess. In Operation Red Sea, the Chinese operators use Western military gear instead of standard-issue PLA equipment.
Similar to American movies that receive Pentagon funding, Operation Red Sea is no different: The Chinese Navy was a major contributor to the production, showcasing its equipment and technology.
The concept of the enemy is central to every war movie. But there are often multiple levels to this question. In Operation Red Sea, the enemies are superficially Islamic terrorists. However, although China has dealt with Islamic extremism among elements of the Uyghur independence movement, Islamic terrorism is primarily a Western issue. Instead, Operation Red Sea is a flex of China’s “global might,” best showcased by the ending scene featuring a group of Chinese ships patrolling the contested region of the South China Sea. A loudspeaker from one ship loudly warns all other vessels about “entering Chinese waters.” In Chinese military movies, the enemy will often be a foreign entity seeking to prevent China’s rightful rise to the global stage.
Perhaps the best example is Wolf Warrior 2 (available on Hulu.) The film hit a box office bonanza of $874 billion, making it the highest-grossing Chinese film of all time. Wolf Warrior 2 features Chinese hero Leng Feng, a retired PLA special forces soldier who now lives in Africa. But he soon finds himself in the crossfire of a civil war.
However, the true enemy is a group of Western mercenaries led by Big Daddy, an American played by Marvel movie alum Frank Grillo. The position of an American main villain is deliberate as the United States is seen by the Chinese government as its primary foreign antagonist.
In the movie, when the Chinese fleet arrives on its rescue mission, an American ship is shown fleeing in juxtaposition to the arriving Chinese. In a later scene, Leng Feng rescues a female Chinese-American doctor from the mercenaries. There’s an absurd scene wherein she mentions having contacted the American consulate for help “by tweeting at them.” She then calls the embassy directly only to be greeted by voicemail. Leng Feng responds with a smirk, stating that the Americans have already escaped. In the final fight between Big Daddy and Leng Feng, the American villain has the Chinese hero by knifepoint and utters “your race will always be the weak.” Of course, Leng Feng snatches victory at the last second before retorting, “that’s f*cking history.”
In Wolf Warrior 2, Chinese forces are a consistent global force for good. The arriving Chinese Navy commander plainly states that he cannot send troops on a rescue mission without UN approval. An African warlord screams at Big Daddy for killing Chinese civilians because “China is a permanent member of the UN Security Council” and he needs them to take power — a comically unrealistic piece of dialogue. The Africans are also shown as friendly but less advanced people in need of Chinese assistance, all of which aims at bolstering China’s current image in Africa.
China will continue to produce more nationalistic films, but it’s important to remember that the Chinese audience is diverse and not everyone loves these movies. Additionally, the Chinese film industry is under strict censorship. Recently, The Eight Hundred was released. It is a historical war film about a group of Kuomintang soldiers in the Battle of Shanghai in 1937. Yet, the movie was delayed for a year, likely due to its lionizing elements of the Kuomintang, the rivals of the Communists in the Chinese Civil War.
Chinese censorship will continue to propagate nationalistic movies, adhering to the Chinese government’s version of a new and robust global image. After all, even scholars now refer to aggressive Chinese diplomacy as Wolf Warrior Diplomacy.