In 2007, an up-and-coming Chinese leader by the name of Xi Jinping was having dinner with the US ambassador. As the evening wound down, the ambassador asked Xi if he’d seen any good movies lately. Xi said he had a DVD of “Flags of Our Fathers” that he meant to watch. He added that he liked Hollywood’s World War II films because they’re “grand and truthful” in their moral outlook. By contrast, he thought Chinese films were too concerned with “talking about bad things in imperial palaces.”
If that’s a guide to what Xi wants to watch, then he’s probably a fan of “Wolf Warrior 2,” the patriotic shoot-’em-up that has just become the top-grossing film in Chinese history, and the first non-Hollywood title to crack the top 100 of all time. China’s filmmakers have long hoped to tell patriotic stories with Hollywood flair, and “Wolf Warrior 2” shows they can do it. That’s good news for Chinese audiences -- and a stark warning to Hollywood.
Ever since China opened its screens to foreign entertainment, Hollywood has maintained a stronghold on its audiences. Last year, international films -- most of which originated in the US -- accounted for 42 percent of China’s box-office take, even though the government allows only 34 foreign films to be released each year, and restricts them to unpopular times and limited runs.
But as popular as American films are in China, there’s an undeniable hunger for well-told Chinese stories. Historically, two factors have stood in the way of meeting that demand. China’s movie business has long lagged Hollywood’s standards, for everything from special effects to choreographing chase scenes. And political concerns have led filmmakers to censor themselves to avoid unwanted attention. The results were films that didn’t look good and didn’t tell compelling stories.
Recently, however, that’s been changing. Local filmmakers have found genres that they can explore without much government interference, and their storytelling skills have improved with bigger budgets and increased exposure to Hollywood films. Several Chinese-made comedies have recently become big hits, propelled by locally flavored humor (often incomprehensible to overseas audiences), good production values, and themes that touch on middle-class anxieties. China suddenly has localized versions of everything from the “Hangover” series to “Planes, Trains and Automobiles.”
As satisfying as that success has been, though, Chinese studios have mostly failed at a bigger prize: making big-budget action films that can compete with the flag-waving blockbusters perfected by Hollywood.
It’s not for lack of trying. Last year, China’s most famous director helmed “The Great Wall,” a ridiculous $150 million China-Hollywood co-production in which Matt Damon defended the Great Wall from CGI monsters. It flopped, both critically and commercially, much to the disappointment of studios in both countries. The film’s effort to include “Chinese elements,” such as a clumsily recreated folk opera, came off as patronizing at best.
Many in Hollywood presumably expected “Wolf Warrior 2” to be a similar flop. The story follows Leng Feng, a moody ex-soldier who drinks excessively, in part to dull the pain from the loss of his presumed-dead girlfriend. Over the course of the film, he finds purpose, patriotism and redemption, all via death-defying one-man rescues of Chinese citizens trapped in an unnamed African country. He’s a cliche, echoing characters from Dirty Harry to John Rambo. Yet in China, where military men are typically depicted as one-dimensional patriots, Leng turned out to be a cinematic revolution.
Wu Jing, the film’s star and director, doesn’t deny that the jingoistic plot elements are inspired by red-white-and-blue blockbusters. “America makes movies that promote the American spirit,” he said in an interview. “Why can’t I do that for China?” A few years ago, he probably couldn’t have. Today, he’s planning “Wolf Warrior 3” and his next assault on Hollywood’s action films. The copycats are sure to follow.
That’s mostly a good thing. China’s filmmakers have an inherent advantage in grasping the mood of mayhem-loving local audiences. As their tradecraft improves, they’re likely to take back some of Hollywood’s share of the domestic box office. When a rebooted “Rambo” goes toe-to-toe with the next Leng Feng, the outcome is likely to be in China’s favor. For Hollywood, that’s an ominous sign of new competition. But it’s also an opportunity to get creative, and start taking Chinese audiences seriously. That’s a blockbuster everyone should want to see.
By Adam Minter
Adam Minter is a Bloomberg View columnist. -- Ed.