Last month, movie tickets sales in mainland China hit 10.1 billion yuan ($1.6 billion), a box office world record for monthly sales in a single market. And as Chinese consumers went movie mad, no film stood out more than “Operation Red Sea.”
Directed by Dante Lam and starring Zhang Yi, “Operation Red Sea” is loosely based on the Chinese navy’s March 2015 evacuation of Yemen. Set amid militant unrest in a fictional Middle Eastern country, it tells the stories of a ship’s crew and an assault team as they rescue Chinese citizens and foreign refugees, resolving a potential nuclear crisis along the way. By the end of February, the film had grossed almost 2.5 billion yuan in just 13 days.
Unlike last summer’s blockbuster “Wolf Warrior 2,” a bombastic tale of a loose-cannon Chinese soldier in an unnamed African country, “Operation Red Sea” is a dyed-in-the-wool war movie. The former has more in common with action movies such as the “Die Hard” franchise, while the content, production techniques, and audiovisual effects in the latter draw closer comparisons to Ridley Scott’s 2001 epic “Black Hawk Down.”
In the field of film studies, we often refer to movies like “Operation Red Sea” as “symptom films,” because they capture something of the prevailing social zeitgeist — in this case, growing Chinese national pride and confidence in the military. The success of “Operation Red Sea” neatly follows January’s downgrading of the state-run August First Film Studio, a move that symbolized the end of an era for traditional Chinese war movies. Established soon after China was reunified under Communist rule in 1949, August First was the country’s foremost producer of war movies. Over more than 60 years, it released scores of films now considered domestically as classics of the genre, such as the “Decisive Engagement” trilogy of 1990 to 1992. Earlier this year, though, August First was made a mere department of the People’s Liberation Army Culture and Arts Center, a decision that casts doubt on its role in China’s future war productions.
Many traditional Chinese war movies were set during three of the country’s major mid-20th century conflicts: World War II, the Chinese Civil War, or the Korean War. The army typically lent labor and weaponry during the films’ production. The movies themselves usually gave audiences a bird’s-eye view of war, narrating both from the perspective of soldiers on the ground and from the point of view of military figures on the opposing side. Through this macro-level approach, filmmakers emphasized how leaders achieved victory and supposedly won historical justice by adapting their strategies to fit the changing situation on the ground.
By interpreting and reshaping the country’s collective memories of recent conflicts, such movies also encouraged audiences to subconsciously identify with and support war in the name of the ruling political class and thereby bolster its historical claim to legitimacy.
“Operation Red Sea” turns away from these grand narratives. Like its modern American counterparts, it focuses on one of today’s localized conflicts, talking up the dangers of terrorism and showing how the fighting methods of the 20th century — including positional warfare and large-scale bombing campaigns — are being superseded by more random combat styles that can break out anywhere and at any time.
It also captures the diversity of modern battlefields: Fighting takes place in the streets, in houses, in places of worship, in refugee camps, and in the open desert. Where traditional war films divide the cast into friends and enemies, “Operation Red Sea” examines the complex motivations of people and organizations in wartime, featuring an array of refugees, resistance fighters, terrorists, multinational corporations, diplomats, reporters, and government officials.
Instead of addressing overarching military strategy, “Operation Red Sea” examines tactics at the ground level. In addition to showing off China’s advanced military hardware, the movie also delves into the deep emotional bonds between members of the assault unit, a move that subtly encourages audiences to emotionally invest in more complex on-screen personalities than they are used to seeing in classic war films. Characters are also shown to be capable of responding flexibly to unexpected scenarios during well-choreographed fight scenes.
While China’s classic war movies portrayed war as glorious, “Operation Red Sea” actually preaches peace. The film’s plot may revolve around a military operation, but this faithfulness to the genre’s well-worn tropes does not aim to romanticize what’s happening on screen. Instead, it seeks to lay bare the blindness, brutality, violence, and absurdity of warfare. Inserted into a complex environment, certain team members pay with their lives in order to rescue a Chinese woman kidnapped by terrorists. Perhaps, then, “Operation Red Sea” is more similar to Western films like Stanley Kubrick’s 1987 psychological thriller “Full Metal Jacket” and the bloody reenactments of combat in 1998’s “Saving Private Ryan.” In stark contrast to the attempts of “Wolf Warrior 2” to appeal to surging Chinese nationalism, “Operation Red Sea” casts war as crisis-ridden, dangerous, and violent. For all that it thrills, it also leaves audiences scared and repulsed.
The vast majority of Chinese people today, like their Western counterparts, have no direct experience of war. Instead, they experience war through the ideological conflicts borne out in the media and the arts. The significance of “Operation Red Sea” lies in the way it discards the propaganda-laden historicism we are so used to seeing in traditional Chinese war movies. The constant stream of tense battlefield action undermines any depiction of war as theatrical and glorious; instead of stirring battle scenes, we witness death and suffering in its naked, terrifying reality. Instead of infallible generals and invincible heroes, we follow a cohesive unit of soldiers taught to treat war with a studied coldness.
As real wars have faded from our lives, movie audiences not born in countries dealing with localized conflicts will probably never experience a war during their lifetimes. Yet even in an era without war, it continues to live on as a kind of ideology. The ways in which people think about, fear, and use war are all extremely important, and cinema continues to reflect this. Today, a metaphorical battle is being fought between China’s traditional war movies and their modern counterparts, a war over how best to depict fighting through images on our screens.
Translator: Kilian O’Donnell; editors: Wu Haiyun and Matthew Walsh.
(Header image: A still frame from the film ‘Operation Red Sea.’ IC)