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Tuesday, October 01, 2019

Action Movie Nationalism

The long leg of my flight back from France was nine hours, and although I spent a lot of that reading, as the time zones slip by and the hours stretch out, I don't have the stamina to read that entire time. Eventually I turned to my seat-back video screen and the selection of movies to choose from. There wasn't much on the list that I was eager to see, but one title jumped out at me as something that I'd read about when it came out, a Chinese action movie called Wolf Warrior 2. Sitting on a plane for nine hours is dead time anyway, so I sacrificed two hours to Wolf Warrior.

It's not unusual for action movies to present a good deal of a country's idea of itself.

Independence Day famously has the US leading the entire world in freeing itself from alien invasion on the 4th of July, with the fighter pilot president giving a world-wide speech about how today will now mark independence for all. The movie conveys a strong sense of America as symbol of world leadership, can-do spirit, and freedom.

Numerous cold war era movies from the Rambo franchise to Top Gun conveyed a sense of how Americans saw themselves in the world and in contrast to their enemies.

Wolf Warrior is a sort of funhouse mirror version of this effect, as it is a product of the artistic imagination of the Chinese Government (currently celebrating seventy years of dictatorship over the world's most populous country.)

 Set in Africa, the movie follows Leng Feng, a former member of an elite commando unit of the Chinese People's Liberation Army called the Wolf Warriors. Kicked out of the army after beating up a crowd of construction workers and their sniveling boss, who was seeking to demolish the home of a fallen Wolf Warrior, Feng is now working as a freelancer in Africa. There, his friends among the workers in Chinese built and managed factories and in a Doctors Without Borders style medical mission come under threat from a bloodthirsty group of revolutionaries struggling for control of the unnamed African country where the action takes place. Behind these revolutionaries lurk (perhaps predictably) the core villain, an even more bloodthirsty group of American and European military contractors who seek to rule the country and get control of a deadly virus and the vaccine for it which has been discovered by a Chinese doctor working at the medical mission.

Massive action scenes ensue, with Feng getting together with an American doctor love interest who seeks peace and speaks fluent Chinese, a grizzled fellow veteran of the People's Liberation Army, and a spoiled but earnest young Chinese man eager to hear the sounds of AK-47s in the morning to lead a mostly nameless and faceless group of African characters in fighting off massive numbers of revolutionaries and mercenaries. A brave Chinese ambassador and a stick-to-the-rules Chinese navy commander fill out other keys roles in the cast and plot. They're eager to rescue Feng and the Africans he's taken under his protection, but only if they can do so with the full authority of the UN, where we are reminded multiple times China is a member of the security council.

What's fascinating here is seeing how the movie (which with $847M in Chinese domestic box office was one of the largest grossing movies of 2017 despite getting virtually no play beyond China) portrays China: as a brave people willing to stand up for themselves against a bloodthirsty West, tough and proud, but also generous in bringing medicine and technology to the developing world while rigorously obeying international law.

There are clearly a good many contradictions between that image and the Chinese regime which not only killed millions of its own people in the 1960s, but even today is known for using political prisoners for slave labor and organ harvesting, while silencing political opposition on the streets of Hong Kong and through some of the world's most effective internet censorship. But given that the Chinese film industry is under direct government guidance, what we definitely see in a movie like this is the image of China which the government would like to project to its people and to audiences abroad. Not, primarily, in the US and the rest of the developed world, but in the developing world in which China would like to position itself as a leader and protector against the existing international players.  And that image is clearly one of a global superpower which would like to edge out the existing ones, particularly in regards to the developing world. 

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