The ultra-nationalist fantasy Wolf Warrior 2 is making crowds - and government officials - happy.
- By Kevin Fan HsuKevin Fan Hsu teaches International Policy Studies and Urban Studies at Stanford University. He co-founded the Human Cities Initiative.
China’s hottest summer blockbuster is the action flick Wolf Warrior 2. Drawing record-breaking domestic audiences and topping global box-office earnings, the film has played to massive crowds that line up for late-night showings. While the first Wolf Warrior movie faltered, the sequel has attracted an audience largely on the strength of its action sequences: a fast-paced romp full of spraying bullets and gratuitous explosions. As with all films shown in China this summer, screenings are preceded by the Chinese government’s newest propaganda clips, featuring stars extolling how to live the “Chinese dream.” But Wolf Warrior 2 serves up a nationalistic message of its own.
Set in an unnamed African country, the movie tells the story of a former special forces soldier, Leng Feng (played by Wu Jing) — once part of the elite Wolf Warriors squad — who volunteers to rescue Chinese medical personnel and factory workers trapped by clashing rebel and government forces. The film appeals to audiences with balletic gunfights, armed killer drones, and full platoons with guns blazing away, but beyond an entertaining two hours bristling with weaponry, the film also provides a glimpse of how the Chinese government wants to present its place in the world to its own people. This movie isn’t necessarily intended to impress foreigners but is aimed at persuading a domestic audience of the country’s growing power and righteousness.
Though it might seem like a throwaway summer movie, the authorities appear committed to its vision, producing a parade of breathless praise in state media. After one film critic slammed the movie online as “bloody” and “psychopathic,” her online presence disappeared, and she may have been sacked from her job.
The film comes across like speculative fiction, offering a world where China is already an international heavyweight and an “indispensable nation.” Everyone, from the unnamed African country’s prime minister to the rebels fighting him, knows of “the Chinese,” who seem to factor crucially into each character’s calculations. Numerous times, assailants declare, “We cannot kill the Chinese!” for fear of the Middle Kingdom’s wrath, even as they unload their weapons on their African brethren without hesitation.
While the Wolf Warrior proves his international chops in the opening scenes by speaking to the locals in a few halting words of English, Mandarin is the lingua franca among most of the film’s characters. Chinese store owners, Chinese factory managers, Chinese doctors and nurses running Chinese-invested hospitals — enterprising overseas Chinese are everywhere. Their presence is portrayed as highly beneficial, providing jobs for African workers, developing local infrastructure, and powering the economy.
Meanwhile, as rebels sweep across the countryside, most international powers have already fled. No Western militaries will set foot in this conflict, even though it’s fueled by Western mercenaries backing the rebels. The United Nations (spoiler alert) is portrayed as a well-meaning idea that is thoroughly ineffectual in the field, with an ill-fated U.N. helicopter blasted out of the sky.
Amid the fray, China is the only nation to send ships to evacuate citizens, defending them with well-armed and highly effective Chinese Embassy guards, who stare down rebel soldiers. In contrast, as Leng Feng drives a hapless Asian-American doctor (and female love interest) away from the carnage, she splutters, “I contacted the American Embassy, but they haven’t responded!” “How did you contact them?” he asks her. “I tweeted at them.” This little dig hits at both America’s obsession with digital technologies (ultimately useless) and impotence in aiding its own citizens when it really matters. Fortunately, China’s fighting forces leave no one behind.
Chinese viewers may be thrilled to find out that this dramatization reflects a real-life phenomenon. A 2011 military evacuation of Chinese nationals from Libya was at the time the largest noncombatant operation to date by the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA). This was repeated in Yemen in 2015, signaling a future willingness by China to range farther and act decisively on behalf of its citizenry abroad.
The film highlights the folly of relinquishing one’s Chinese passport and giving up this umbrella of protection. An ethnically Chinese local shopkeeper justifies ripping off other Chinese visitors by explaining that he has already ditched his native citizenship and therefore doesn’t have to look out for his compatriots. Minutes later, he backtracks and claims, “We are all Chinese!” when marauding rebels invade his shop, and he is saved by Leng Feng, who escorts him and his employees to the Chinese Embassy.
Yet unlike the gun-toting cowboy tendencies of America, the film’s Chinese superpower respects the United Nations. Its navy abides by international law and will not act until receiving U.N. Security Council authorization. It’s an overt reminder that China simply wants to be your friendly neighborhood P5 member with nuclear weapons.
The PLA Navy’s thunderous scenes could be clipped straight from a recruiting video: crisp uniforms, swift ships, strong prows. The fleet represents the extension of China’s expanding power, rapidly responding to both military and civilian crises as far as sub-Saharan Africa. The Chinese navy has in recent years sent ships to the Gulf of Aden and the Indian Ocean to combat piracy, and some reports suggest that it may be developing deepwater ports that can support refueling or logistics.
The literal showboating culminates in a massive missile launch, a high-tech rain of fire that takes out most of the foreign mercenaries, as the deus ex machina role traditionally reserved for America’s military is replaced by the vision of a powerful Chinese navy. Though in reality it has been more than three decades since the PLA Navy has been involved in a hot war, it has dramatically increased its regional presence and undertaken live-fire exercises when Beijing is unhappy about international politics. (And if missiles fly, the movie seems to imply, that would be totally awesome.)
Besides the navy, several other government units also make courtesy appearances in the film: police from the Public Security Bureau in the China-set scenes, regular PLA troops, the ambassador and his diplomatic staff, Chinese Embassy guards, doctors at a state-invested hospital — nearly all of whom are painted in a noble light. In an amusing flashback, Leng Feng intervenes in the forced eviction of Chinese villagers by local thugs, instantly earning him street cred and cementing the heroic qualities of the PLA, albeit at the expense of the local authorities.
After everyone is rescued by Leng Feng’s heroics, coupled with the PLA Navy’s just-in-time salvo, the film absurdly crescendos a second time. To pass through yet another battle line, Leng Feng and the armed Chinese guards toss away their guns, and our hero raises the Chinese flag instead. As the crimson banner with gold stars flaps in the wind, both government and rebel soldiers cease fire and let them pass, hitting home the message that national power — not individual agency, not local connections, not even the everyday contributions of your ethnic community in a host country — matters most.
This talismanic quality is bluntly restated in the film’s epilogue — a screenful of text that helpfully reminds moviegoers that China will “always be right behind you” if you encounter danger abroad. The repetition of this message even crowds out our erstwhile protagonist, ultimately revealing that the real hero is not the Wolf Warrior at all but the Chinese state. This is not a superhero movie; it is a supernation flick.
But while the film’s depiction of state power is distinctly Chinese, its racial politics are an unfortunate copy of old Western prejudices, with only a faint modern gloss. Despite the constant intoning by the Chinese ambassador of Beijing and Africa’s “strong friendship” — yes, apparently, it’s a relationship with the whole continent — most black Africans in the film are relegated to nameless, faceless cannon fodder. The presumably fictional sub-Saharan African setting is frequently referred to as “diseased” and “war-torn.” Stereotypical montages illustrate each of these ills: clutching hands of the needy, corpses laid out to rot, and shocking violence.
The film unabashedly exoticizes Africa as a land filled with guns and graft, desperately poor people, and crocodiles, lions, and giraffes. “Once they’re around a bonfire, their cares go away,” one Chinese fighter tells the protagonist, as the locals holler and dance with abandon to celebrate their impending rescue. At times, the film feels like a weird exercise in what might be called a “yellow savior” mentality — a slant on Hollywood’s problematic “white savior” complex. It takes on the same tropes that have fueled Western cinematic representations of Africa but is centered on a Chinese character instead of a white one.
Racial complexities are not something many Chinese have had to grapple with, in a society where the ethnic Han majority takes its dominance for granted. China is still digesting 19th-century concepts of racial superiority, in which some Asian writers sought to put themselves on an equal footing with Europeans while lording it over “degenerate” brown and black races. These racialized tendencies are reflected in the ongoing problems of Han chauvinism today.
Yet despite the casual racism that rivals Hollywood’s obtuse treatment of minorities, a more nuanced questioning of what it means to “be Chinese” emerges. While Chinese passport-holders are prioritized for naval evacuation, Leng Feng’s African godson slips through the boarding gate when the hero claims, “This is my son!” Later, when choosing workers to board a U.N. helicopter, Chinese employees are slated to leave, but Africans are ordered to stay behind. “Chinese over here, Africans over there,” the factory manager yells while splitting up the crowd. This pains many of the workers, especially those in relationships with locals. One stubborn Chinese worker insists on bringing his African spouse across the line to be evacuated, insisting, “We’re married now! That makes her Chinese, doesn’t it?”
The film encapsulates the congratulatory story the Communist Party hopes to tell Chinese people about the state’s growing power and its excursions abroad. In the world of Wolf Warrior, China develops new superpowers by emulating the West and eventually subsumes the role formerly occupied by America, Great Britain, and other imperialist nations — but with (of course) a sense of virtue and self-restraint that the West historically lacked.
And just as China appears to be emulating past Western geopolitical ambitions, so the movie skillfully imitates Hollywood. While it may not qualify as a cinematic masterpiece, Wolf Warrior 2 equals any Fast and Furious installment when it comes to stunt work, heroic charisma, and kinetic fight scenes.
Perhaps that’s what has made the movie such a smash hit, compared with other Chinese propaganda efforts such as the star-laden, but poorly performing, Founding series of historical snoozers. Audiences who have flocked to see it in such numbers might be going because it chimes with their sense of China’s new greatness, but far more likely it’s because Wolf Warrior 2 is that rare thing: an entertaining summer blockbuster they don’t have to watch dubbed.
Photo Credit: GREG BAKER/AFP/Getty Images