Chinese cinema delivers a surprise superhero blockbuster

"Wolf Warrior 2" has smashed box-office records and broken new ground with a domestic action film that's not afraid to exploit the bravado of a fearless Chinese soldier. 

A loose-cannon ex-special forces soldier is released from prison and ends up in an African country fighting local rebels and cutthroat arms dealers. And amid the bullet-carrying drones, tank chase scenes and one-on-one fisticuffs with super villains, the hero manages to romance a beautiful woman.

Sound like a Hollywood action film? Well, the plot and characters may suggest it, but “Wolf Warrior 2” is actually a Chinese-made movie with a Chinese lead actor, African refugees and a white Western villain. It broke the domestic box office record earlier this week.

Wu Jing was both director and star of the film, which has drawn somewhat tepid critical reviews despite its commercial success. Still, the movie has been hailed by fans as the most authentic superhero film ever portrayed in a Chinese film.

“Wu Jing has created a real Chinese hero,” commented Du She Film, a popular film critic with 5 million followers on Weibo. “The typical Chinese hero in previous patriotic movies was usually impossibly perfect. This one is different. He is arrested and expelled at the beginning of the movie. He drinks too much and loses control of himself. He is a real person, something most previous films of this genre failed to achieve.”

“Wolf Warrior 2” cost 200 million yuan (US$30 million) to make. It hit the screens on July 27 and within two weeks broke the domestic box-office record of 3.39 billion yuan previously set by Stephen Chow's 2016 fantasy-comedy “The Mermaid.”

Gross revenue has already surpassed 4 billion yuan, with analysts estimating it could end up earning between 5 billion and 6 billion yuan. "Wolf Warrior 3" is already in the works.

The movie, with English subtitles, has had limited release in cinemas in the United States, Singapore, Australia and the United Kingdom.

The runaway success of the film took many by surprise. 

“We initially estimated it to gross about 1.2 billion yuan, and I revised that to 1.5 billion after seeing the competed film, but I never expected it to become such a phenomenon,” Jiang Wusheng, one of the film’s distributors, told the media.

Foreign action movies based on Marvel Comics characters have swept the Chinese market in the past few years, and many Chinese filmmakers have tried and failed to come up with a domestic superhero to match. 

The first “Wolf Warrior,” which premiered in two summers ago, grossed 560 million yuan. It was considered a dark horse after Wu spent years convincing investors to back the production.

Chinese cinema delivers a surprise superhero blockbuster

Action star Wu Jing has created the new image of a superhero who fights evildoers with fearless bravado.

The actor, 43, is not a superstar of the status of Jackie Chan or Jet Li or Donnie Yen, though he has appeared in several Hong Kong kung fu films. Some investors weren’t convinced that a Chinese-made superhero film would resonate with audiences, since so many previous domestic action films were martial arts movies without guns or car chases or were nationalistic movies dismissed as patriotic propaganda.

Wu said in a recent interview that many people have a stereotyped image of patriotic films as something apart from commercial movies.

“Why do we have to separate them?” he asked. “‘Wolf Warrior 2’ has every element a commercial blockbuster requires.”

The emergence of this summer mega-movie is reminiscent of the success of the 2012 comedy “Lost in Thailand.” It was the first Chinese movie to gross more than 1 billion yuan, surprising and charming audiences in a market that lacked domestic comedies.

Similarly, the market has also been devoid of domestic action blockbusters and Chinese heroes.

While Hollywood films often glorify underdogs, Chinese patriotic films and TV have typically portrayed leading men as flawless heroes. They are often so unrealistic that they bore audiences. However, the line between good and bad in Chinese films and TV is beginning to blur.

For example, the hit TV series “In the Name of the People” drew its plot from China’s anti-corruption campaign. Most investors shunned the project because they didn’t think the subject matter would appeal to young audiences. Yet, surprisingly, the show became one of the most popular on TV in the first half of this year. Young viewers were captivated by the intriguing characters and the conniving shenanigans of some government officials.

In somewhat the same way, the "Wolf Warrior" series is redefining the image of the Chinese soldier.

Chinese cinema delivers a surprise superhero blockbuster

The scene where Wu Jing waves the Chinese flag through a war zone excites many viewers but irritates some as well.

Wu’s character, Leng Feng, has been kicked out of the army. He goes to an unnamed African country where a military coup has broken out and tries to rescue a Chinese scientist trapped there. In the end, he saves both Chinese and African employees of a Chinese-invested factory from local renegades and Western mercenaries.

The film’s patriotic theme, its passionate portrait of a Chinese soldier and Leng’s incredible feats of bravado have all become the subjects of fierce public debate, making it one of the most talked-about films in Chinese movie-making.

On, China’s version of IMDB, the film is rated 7.5 out of 10. On the Western Rotten Tomatoes site, critics gave it 2.5 out of 10, though the audience rating was 90 percent favorable. 

The film’s detractors say the plot is illogical and the theme is too nationalistic.

“The film was entertaining for the most part, but I found it awkward when the protagonist waves the Chinese flag through the war zone and both parties just stop firing and let the Chinese through,” says 28-year-old Wang Haili, an action film fan. “I read later that the scene was inspired by real events, but, still, it felt weird to see that on the screen.”

Those who love the film cite the same scene as an adrenalin moment.

“I felt my blood surge when the flag was waving on the screen,” says 19-year-old college student Lin Jina. “I never realized that I am such a patriot. All my friends and classmates are speaking so highly of the film. They are passionate about it, and I can understand why. I never thought I’d see such an exciting domestic movie. Wu Jing is a real fighter.”

In a recent interview, Wu disparaged critics who found the superhero’s exploits a bit unconvincing.

“They ask how come I am not killed in the film,” Wu said. “Yet, you can watch an American movie where the hero beats a whole troop of armed soldiers without even getting a scratch and you think he is super cool. You see a Chinese like me beating a handful of foreign mercenaries, and you say that I must die? Say what you will, but I despise those who think what’s okay for American heroes is impossible for Chinese. There is nothing wrong with portraying Chinese soldiers as brave because that’s how they are.”

(Stanley Chu contributed to this article.)

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