Notes from a fascinating world.
The world is like a bazaar, full of interesting odds and ends, and I've been exiled into it. This is my all-over-the-map (literally and metaphorically) attempt at capturing some of the world's many wonders.
“Did you see the new ‘Wolf Warrior’?” A middle-aged woman asked me last year when I was again in China, when the film was still showing in theaters. I said no, and she could hardly believe it. “Aiya!” she said. “When the flag came out at the end, I just felt so good, you know? Felt awesome. So proud.”
You don’t have to actually see “Wolf Warrior II,” or even the trailer, to know what to expect. The poster, or even the title alone, tells you that it’s going to be a bombastic action movie. By the time I had this conversation with this woman, though, I also knew a couple other things about the film: first that it presents a nationalistic (to the point of jingoistic) view of China and especially its military, and second that it was already the highest grossing Chinese film of all time.
I had little interest to see such a film. But then someone pointed out to me that perhaps I ought to, if only from a sociological point of view, the better to understand the contemporary Chinese psyche. Then the other day I discovered that it was on Netflix. And I thought, well, all right, but only for research purposes.
The plot concerns an ex-special forces soldier of the People’s Liberation Army, Leng Feng (which, by the way, means “cold blade” — subtle), who now works in shipping in an unnamed African country with substantial Chinese investments. While an epidemic rages there, civil war breaks out, and the People’s Republic of China evacuates its citizens. But a group of them are trapped. Active Chinese troops are constrained by the UN. Leng, wolf warrior that he is, volunteers to go — alone and unarmed of course — to get them out, which puts him on a collision course with the Western mercenaries working with the rebels who started the civil war.
And, reader, the film did not disappoint. It was at once exactly what I expected and yet also surprising at the same time. I’ll save the surprise until the end.
In two important ways — and both ways help to explain the film’s popularity — it is a highly American film.
From a technical point of view, Wu Jing, the director as well as star, has clearly aimed to construct his film in the Hollywood fashion. Historically, Chinese films often lack the narrative coherence of Hollywood that results from the Aristotelian three-act structure that they drill into would-be screenwriters in American film schools. Here, Wu clearly tries to remedy that lack. Not that he is wholly successful, but the improvement is obvious.
Moreover, he may have been reading folks like John Truby, who explains in his book, The Anatomy of Story, that a hero requires both a “need” and a “desire” in order for his story arc to work. This is an often unappreciated secret of Hollywood. In “Die Hard,” John McClane’s desire is to kill the terrorists, but his need is to reconcile with his wife. In “Top Gun,” Maverick’s desire is to win the Top Gun trophy, but his need is to get over the chip on his shoulder that is a result of the death of his father. In each case, achieving his desire will also satisfy the hero’s need. So Leng’s desire is to save his countrymen (and other hangers-on) from the rebels and the mercenaries, but his need is to avenge the death of the woman he loved. It will turn out, and you can see this coming from the other side of the Great Wall, that the mercenaries terrorizing this African country will also have been responsible for her death.
“Wolf Warrior II” is also highly American in that it actually quotes Hollywood films. From the Captain America movies, for example. Wu Jing even hired Frank Grillo, who played Crossbones in “Winter Soldier” and in “Civil War,” to play the American baddy. The opening sequence of a pirate attack on a freighter is reminiscent of the beginning of “Winter Soldier.” And there’s a post-credits scene teasing the next installment just like the Marvel films.
Moreover, as China-watcher Evan Osnos pointed out, it’s just like the ‘80s American action films like the Rambo series. Here the allusions are obvious again: at one point Leng uses a bow and arrows instead of guns just like John Rambo.
And all the same ‘80s elements are there. Rambo and America were presented as in the right in Vietnam. So Leng and China are presented as in the right in Africa (and beloved by Africans), despite the specter of imperialism that China has in reality raised on that continent.
The white American hero rampaging through Asia or Latin America always found a hot local love interest who spoke remarkably good English. So here Leng finds a love interest in the form of a young American doctor who speaks fluent Mandarin (played by a Hong Kong-American actress of mixed heritage who can play either white or Asian but is here clearly meant to be seen as white American).
There was no respect for knowledge of geography or history or politics in the ‘80s films, so that Rambo could say that he would cross the border from Vietnam into Thailand, forgetting that Vietnam did not border Thailand. So Leng can start the story in a port city by the coast and then a minute later appear to be driving through the Serengeti. The filmmakers also seem unable to decide whether this African country is Anglophone or Francophone.
Both the ‘80s films and “Wolf Warrior II” demonstrate no respect for local lives: enormous body counts show the lives of the “natives” as expendable.
In fact, one Chinese character (one of the good guys) at one point refers to Africans as “heige,” which literally and charitably translates to “black brothers,” or less charitably (given the informality of the expression) as “blackies.” He used the term affectionately, but still. Chinese racism against Africans is of course hardly news.
And yet the film rails against what the Chinese perceive as racism against themselves. In the final confrontation between Leng and Grillo’s ill-conceived villain, the American mercenary declares, “People like you will always be inferior to people like me; get used to it.” I have heard that the subtitles in Chinese cinemas made this line more clearly racist than the English original. To this Leng replies in Mandarin with a line that I would translate as, “That’s the God damned past,” and which Netflix translates as, “That’s fucking history.” The film circles around then to the hackneyed theme of national grievance born of the “century of humiliations” starting with the Opium War. Only here it is gratuitous: the film sets up Grillo’s character as evil, but it never says that he’s racist until the end — a deus ex machina of racism.
Finally I am treated to the middle-aged woman’s favorite scene. As the Chinese depart in a convoy to get to the port, they discover that there is fighting directly ahead between government troops and the rebels. Leng takes up the crimson flag of the People’s Republic of China and hoists it up using his arm as a flag pole. Then he tells the drivers to keep going. They approach the war zone. And fighters on both sides, as soon as they see the as-though talismanic Chinese flag, cease firing and say, “It’s the Chinese, let them pass.”
Sure, buddy. Sure.
So, jingoism, check, check, and check. And yet, if the film represents a stage in the development of pop culture in China just as Rambo represented a stage in American pop culture, then perhaps we can hope to see in ten year some more introspective productions, as occurred in America in the 1990s.
But I promised to tell you why the film also surprised me.
Given the jingoism, I didn’t expect the occasional images that could — keeping in mind that China is an authoritarian country where outright criticisms of the government are not allowed — be interpreted as protests.
First there is the flashback that explain why Leng is a former spec ops soldiers and not a current one. It involves an attempt to demolish the home of his fallen comrade — attempt by whom, whether a private developer or a corrupt official, is not made entirely clear. But everyone understands that the government has been doing much of the demolition in China. The character 拆, meaning “to demolish,” is ubiquitous in many old neighborhoods in Beijing, spray-painted by officials onto old houses that are marked for demolition. Here it appears in one quick shot, spray-painted on a wall.
Even more remarkably, toward the end of the film, Grillo’s character drives a tank toward Leng, who confronts him with only his muscles. In the cinema of any other country, this might just be an action set piece: sinews vs. steel. But in China, the image of a solitary man standing up to a tank and stopping it with only his courage has a deeper and tragic shade of meaning.
Because it actually happened. At Tiananmen Square. The tank belonged to the People’s Liberation Army itself. And that time the soldiers came to kill their own people, not to save them.
Well, the first “Rambo” was also a protest film.
Writer, traveler, lawyer, dilettante. Failed student of physics. Not altogether distinguished graduate of two Ivy League institutions. Immigrant twice over. "The grand tour is just the inspired man's way of getting home."