Can China’s latest military blockbuster Operation Red Sea strike a chord with the West?

Can China’s latest military blockbuster Operation Red Sea strike a chord with the West?

Against the backdrop of a fictitious war-torn Arab country, an eight-strong Chinese navy special forces team rescues hostages from terrorists, evacuates civilians from spiralling violence and foils a plot to make dirty bombs from nuclear waste. 

This is the story told by Operation Red Sea, the latest Chinese movie blockbuster, which was partly inspired by a Chinese military evacuation mission carried out in Yemen nearly three years ago.

Raking in US$495 million in box-office sales after its release on February 16, it is currently the fourth highest-grossing mainland Chinese film in history.

Beyond its box-office success in China, Operation Red Sea has also fared well abroad, with analysts suggesting it has toned down the bellicose patriotism normally featured in Chinese military action flicks in favour of a brutal depiction of the savagery of war. 

[Operation Red Sea] is war propaganda that comes off as anti-war
Maggie Lee, Variety magazine

This formula could be a step towards making Chinese action films more palatable overseas, they say, as the jingoistic message found in Wolf Warrior 2 – another military smash hit film that set a domestic ticket sales record in July last year – drove moviegoers overseas away.

“As a cinema-goer, what was left in my mind after seeing [Operation Red Sea] was nothing but bloody scenes,” said Song Geng, a Chinese studies professor at the University of Hong Kong who specialises in Chinese culture and ideology. “Patriotism seemed more like an afterthought,”added Song, referring to the closing scene of the movie when a fleet of Chinese naval patrol vessels drive away an unidentified foreign ship in the disputed waters of the South China Sea.

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Film critic Maggie Lee echoed Song’s sentiment that Operation Red Sea had toned down the heavy-handed patriotism. 

“Despite the premise’s similarity to Wolf Warrior 2 … Operation Red Sea is war propaganda that comes off as anti-war – a patriotic film so carried away by its own visceral, pulverising violence that patriotism almost becomes an afterthought,” Lee, chief Asian film critic at the American entertainment trade magazine Variety, wrote in a review. 

Several scenes graphically depict the brutality of war, including close-up shots of arms and fingers blown up by grenades and bombs. 

One Chinese viewer, commenting on the mainland website Zhihu, wrote: “A film with such realistic war scenes shown in the cinema is the best expression of hopes for peace.” 

Wolf Warrior 2 depicts an invincible super soldier, Leng Feng, on an one-man mission to rescue Chinese citizens from rebels and mercenaries in a fictional African country.

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Overseas ticket sales have only accounted for less than two per cent of Wolf Warrior 2’s overall box office takings of US$874 million.

However, in the first two weeks it was shown in the US, Operation Red Sea has nearly earned as much as Wolf Warrior 2 at the American box office, taking in US$977,616, according to movie data site Box Office Mojo. In Hong Kong, Operation Red Sea achieved box office sales of HK$535,252 (US$84,400) on its first day of screening, surpassing the HK$382,000 recorded for Wolf Warrior 2.

The success of Wolf Warrior 2 in mainland China “rode on the wave of the Chinese people’s psychological need for a screen representation of a strong and powerful nation-state”, said Timmy Chen Chih-ting, a lecturer specialising in Chinese cinema at the Centre for China Studies at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.

But the portrayal of a stronger China has no resonance among international and more educated audiences, according to Song.

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His research suggested that migrant workers in mainland China viewed Wolf Warrior 2 positively, while college students and people with higher education levels were more critical.

“Some of the fans of the film have no experience of going abroad,” Song said. “The film caters to the fantasy of the common people as China’s economic power rises and many people are definitely longing for the renegotiation of China’s place in the world.”

Meanwhile, for the audience in the US, the abundance of home produced movies means foreign language films are rarely a big draw, according to Stanley Rosen, a political-science professor and Chinese movie specialist at the University of Southern California.

Even among those who went to see Wolf Warrior 2 in the United States, Chinese people studying or working there made up the majority of the audience, he said.

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However, Rosen disagreed that Operation Red Sea would attract significantly more moviegoers abroad, even with its toned-down jingoism.

“I don’t think it’ll make much difference in terms of the box office in North America or Europe,” Rosen said. “It will still be almost all Chinese who will go to see it.I think it might do better on DVD because it will appeal to action fans.”


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