What these two movies say about China today

Reviewing "The Wandering Earth" and "The Eight Hundred"

Dear fellow China watchers,

Hollywood has long been a significant weapon in the arsenal of American soft power, something that is recognised in China too. In the struggle for global supremacy, therefore, it is not a surprise that Beijing has targeted the industry, which it is doing in two ways.

First, is to ensure that Hollywood doesn’t mention anything that can be seen as critical to either China or Chinese interests. Getting Tom Cruise to remove the flag of Taiwan from his jacket in the upcoming Top Gun: Maverick is just one example of this.

Second, is to copy Hollywood and outperform it. I’ll write about this more in future (we are pulling together some stats on this) but in our cultural post today I want to talk about two Chinese films that I watched recently, and which reflect the two very different sides of the country’s movie making.

On one side we have a continuation of the wonderfully rich, insightful, and often brave cultural store that has been part of Chinese life for thousands of years.

On the other we have a reflection of the brash, brazen new China that the Communist Party (CCP) is keen to show to the world. I’ll let you decide which film is which…

In the meantime please do consider liking, commenting, and sharing. Many thanks for reading.

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Billed as China’s first blockbuster sci-fi movie, The Wandering Earth is set sometime in the future, when the sun has become unstable, thus forcing the United Earth Government to dislodge the Earth from its orbit to avoid being destroyed. With the help of 10,000 “earth engines”, our planet starts a journey across space to go into orbit around another star some 4.2 lightyears away.

The trouble is, Jupiter gets in the way, and threatens to extinguish Earth for ever. Cue the Chinese saviours.

Despite this being one of the highest-grossing films in Chinese history (which must be the reason why it’s now on Netflix) it’s hard to overstate how bad this movie is. If you’ve seen Wolf Warrior 2 and thought, this is somewhat hammy, then you’re in for a treat with TWE.

Although based on a thought-provoking short story by Liu Cixin, the author of the excellent Three Body Problem trilogy of books, the film rejects its Chinese cultural roots in favour of something far more obvious.

TWE is a mash-up of every American sci-fi film possible. Alien, Gravity, Armageddon, 2001, Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, etc, etc, etc, are either clumsily referenced, or plain ripped off, and acted out by actors who don’t know what they’re doing. In fact, the inability of the cast to act is so pronounced that you end up convincing yourself that they’re actually acting at not being able to act.

Their lot isn’t helped by set pieces that make the Ben Affleck/Liv Tyler romance scenes in Armageddon look Hitchcockian by comparison. It’s hard to come up with scenes like the one where one of the eight thousand characters fires a machine gun into the sky shouting “Screw you, Jupiter!”, but somehow they manage it.

TWE exists to serve two purposes. The first is to make the investors a ton of money, which they did, all $700 million of it. The second is to serve as a vehicle for Chinese propaganda. There’s more to the comparison with Wolf Warrior 2 than just bad dialogue and acting so wooden it would embarrass Pinocchio. Wu Jing, the star and director of the Wolf Warrior series, also stars in TWE, and he does here what he did with his other films: he tells the Chinese people what they should expect from a confident, expansionist China.

In Wolf Warrior 2, Wu (i.e. China) saved Africa from the cruel Americans. In TWE, the ambition goes up a notch, with China now saving the world.

The script feels as if it was written by the PR department of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, with characters brought in with the sole purpose of scoring geopolitical points.

There’s a Russian colonel, Wu’s best friend, who dies supporting the Chinese man’s attempt to save the world. Note to Moscow: Beijing thinks that you’re an important ally, but you’re ultimately disposable.

A group of Indian rescue workers is introduced, but their sole action is to give up without a fight, and the Japanese characters commit suicide out of despair.

The French spokesman for the United Earth Government is portrayed as cowardly and negative, which is a handy contrast to the strutting, heroic Chinese. We have to assume that the UEG is representative of North America too, rather than just Europe, because there aren’t any Americans full stop – the ultimate Chinese fantasy.

And the fact that the main Chinese characters head to Indonesia without any discussion with the Indonesian government might have raised a few eyebrows in Jakarta, but not in Beijing – why would they need permission from the Indonesians?

TWE is not subtle, but it isn’t meant to be. It is instead a rip-roaring portrayal of China as the saviours of mankind, with one eye on the nationalistic domestic market, and one eye on those foreigners who dare to think that China isn’t the new sheriff in town. Expect many more films like this in the coming years as Beijing steps up its internationalist push.

The Eight Hundred, by contrast, is the type of film that China should be making more of, but almost certainly won’t be doing anytime soon.

Set in 1937 Shanghai, The Eight Hundred portrays a Chinese battalion holding out against the Japanese invaders. What adds to the drama is that the warehouse the Chinese are defending is across the river from the luxury of the city’s foreign concessions, which remained neutral in those pre-Pearl Harbor days. There are endless images of wealthy, partying Chinese, guarded by British soldiers, watching their compatriots slaughtered by the ruthless Japanese army a literal stones’ throw away.

On the surface, The Eight Hundred could be dismissed as “just another war film”. But dig a little deeper and it is so much more than that.

For a start, the defenders are not members of the Communist Party, but are instead from the CCP’s sworn enemies, the Nationalist Forces under Chiang Kai-shek. It is quite extraordinary to think that the CCP under Xi Jinping, the most fervent Party man since Mao, would allow this to be screened - after all, the CCP owes its existence to convincing the people that it is improving their lives, and so it finds it difficult to share past glories with anyone. The fact it took two years to be released hints at the political arguments happening behind the scene, arguments that thankfully the filmmakers won, albeit with the addition of a note in the end credits that declares the war to have been really won by the CCP.

It is not a perfect film. It’s slow, and the cast is too big to allow us to really root for any one individual, and the story veers away from the truth to provide us with more gore than is even remotely necessary. (In reality, only ten Chinese soldiers were killed; the film gives us this many bodies within the first five minutes.)

But if you understand the way that the CCP controls history, and what it increasingly does to its citizens who stray from national orthodoxy, then you will realise what a brave film this is. Not quite as brave as a small number of men facing up to 20,000 invaders, but notable nonetheless.

Knowing this, it is far more of a spectacle than The Wandering Earth could ever be. Sadly, it is also one that is unlikely to be repeated soon, as the CCP increases its grip on the accurate representation of China, both past and future.