The Chinese action film Wolf Warrior 2 continues to set records at the box office and stir online debate in China. The film has raked in nearly $700 million in a little more than two weeks since its opening and looks all but set to become China’s biggest blockbuster.
While some are concerned about the chest-thumping nationalism they feel the film whips up, the movie, which features a Rambolike former special forces hero, is also showing that patriotic films can become big hits.
Moviegoers we spoke with liked how the film portrayed situations Chinese have and could face overseas when conflicts arise. They also noted a dispute in China that lands the main character in jail.
At the beginning of the movie, before the film’s hero, Leng Feng, travels to Africa to fight off foreign mercenaries and dodge hundreds (if not thousands) of bullets, he serves a prison sentence for killing a local gangster in China over a forced home demolition.
Forced demolitions, a byproduct of China’s breakneck economic growth, local corruption and greed, is one of the country’s big sources of social discontent.
One woman, surnamed Dong, who has watched the movie twice, said the film was both shocking and interesting. She said it made her think of recent situations when workers from China had to be evacuated from countries overseas by the Chinese military when conflicts arose.
“The director has good understanding of history and politics,” she said. “I heard similar stories (about the evacuation of Chinese citizens from Libya).”
Clearly, the Chinese military’s commitment to keeping its citizens safe overseas was a message the film has driven home. A closing shot in the film features a picture of a Chinese passport and a short message: “Citizens of the People’s Republic of China. When you encounter danger in a foreign land, do not give up! Please remember, at your back stands a strong motherland.”
Atypical patriotic flick
Despite such heavy overtones, and declarations by state media outlets such as the Global Times, which early on said patriotism was giving the action film a boost, those we spoke with say it is how the film was different that made it more attractive.
One woman surnamed Qi said most patriotic films are not believable.
“Usually patriotic movies like The Founding of An Army do not reflect realistic situations of everyday life like Wolf Warrior does, which showed scenes of him trying to stop a forced demolition. These kinds of things are more realistic,” she said.
Another agreed, noting that while some say Wolf Warrior 2 is too commercial and that it is just benefitting from the August lull, the film wasn’t that bad.
“It should be seen as just a regular film. If it was really all about patriotism, then “The Founding of An Army” should be doing well, but it’s not. And the reason for that is that Wolf Warrior 2 is worth watching,” she said.
Floundering military film
The Founding of An Army, a story about the People’s Liberation Army was released about the same time as Wolf Warrior 2 and just days before the Chinese military’s founding anniversary. But unlike Wolf Warrior 2, the film has floundered at the box office.
Part of that might be because censors are running official interference.
The Chinese social networking service Douban forbids users to comment and give marks to The Founding of An Army, a move apparently made to avoid any criticism of the film. Wolf Warrior 2, however, has received four out of five stars and a wide range of comments and opinions.
On the day we saw Wolf Warrior 2, the theater was packed. A ticket clerk let us look at showings for The Founding of An Army. While Wolf Warrior 2 showings were almost fully booked, the seats for The Founding of An Army were largely empty.
The clerk said that in some cases, state-owned enterprises would send employees in large groups to boost the film’s performance. There have also been reports online about moviegoers purchasing tickets for other films, but receiving one with The Founding of An Army on it.
Allegations of box office cheating are not uncommon in China. According to Cbooo.cn, a website that tracks box office revenues in China, the film is lagging far behind with less than 10 percent of Wolf Warrior’s sales.
According to the Hollywood Reporter, Wolf Warrior 2 is the third highest-grossing film in a single territory, trailing Star Wars: The Force Awakens ($937 million) and Avatar ($750 million).
The film’s success has some predicting a brighter future for China’s domestic film industry, with some even saying it could pose a threat to Hollywood. But not all are giving the movie an easy pass. Many have expressed concern about the violence in the film.
Others worry about the nationalistic fervor the film’s glorified violence whips up.
One man, surnamed Zhang, said while the movie is just a consumer product and too much should not be read into it, some of the debate the action blockbuster has stirred up online is worrying. He said he will not see the film.
“The movie is like a war mobilization film,” he said. “It’s sensational and whips up feeling of patriotism and national pride to the point that some who have seen it are saying we should wage war, we should do this and that.”
Online, many are urging the film’s director Wu Jing to follow soon with Wolf Warrior 3, even suggesting he focus on conflicts with foreign powers that showcase Chinese-made weaponry.