Action flick is China’s biggest-ever box-office success, but is it propaganda?
Action flick Wolf Warrior 2 has had a charmed run at the Chinese box office, racking up 3.4 billion RMB after 12 days of screening. China’s previous box-office record was set by the oddball 2016 fantasy The Mermaid, which managed 3.39 billion RMB during its entire run.
Along the way, the sleeper sequel has been embroiled in a number of controversies, partly thanks to its provocative tagline: “Whoever attacks China will be hunted down wherever they are” (犯我中华者, 虽远必诛). A BBC blog called it “nationalistic,” prompting a wounded reaction from the infamously nationalist Global Times, but as one reviewer on MTime noted, “The film is thick with nationalist sentiment, and contains many moving scenes.”
The film unabashedly depicts strong, Chinese saviors embroiled in a conflict in Africa against Western mercenaries, a scenario not so different from how American soldier are routinely depicted in Hollywood flicks like The Expendables—which don’t get regularly labeled as nationalistic. The response reached a crescendo last weekend, after director Wu Jing and his wife were accused of having foreign citizenship, forcing the mother of Wu to post images of his passport online.
The whirlwind success of Wolf Warrior 2 has all but blown away interest in its patriotic companion piece, the Andrew Lau-directed Founding of an Army, a second sequel in the state-backed Founding series. As they did with the two volumes, which were devoted to founding the Republic and Communist Party respectively, officials allegedly intervened to ensure their film did not tank at the box office, mandating screening times, block-buying tickets for state employees and, in some cases, printing Founding tickets for patrons who had, in reality, purchased Wolf Warrior 2 seats. If the latter practice is widespread, then actual takings for Wolf Warrior 2 might be even higher than reported.
But this alone doesn’t explain the massive success enjoyed by Wolf Warrior 2, which joins Lost in Thailand and The Mermaid in unexpected sleeper hits of the summer.
Many critics point to the dearth of competition—the summer is known as “Domestic Film Protection Month” (国产电影保护月), an unofficial policy that ensures that whatever is lighting up Western box offices over during this season does not get a look-in in China.
In the past, this artificial advantage has given a boost to lackluster material like the Lost series, but on Douban, where the film has scored an unusually high 7.5/10 rating, moviegoers seem genuinely impressed with the performances, action sequences and, yes, gratuitous patriotism displayed in Wolf Warrior 2. Meanwhile, the Founding of an Army—which Douban has forbidden from rating—has been roundly mocked for casting various “little fresh meat” in the roles of venerable Communist heroes.
Cover image from Mtime