China has a new box office champion. In the little over two months since its release, the Korean war epic “The Battle at Lake Changjin” has earned more than 5.74 billion yuan ($858 million); late last month, the film passed 2017’s “Wolf Warrior 2” to become the highest-grossing Chinese movie of all time.
Many Chinese film fans greeted the news with a knowing shrug, in part because its success only confirmed what we already suspected. In the words of a popular joke: “Only Wu Jing can beat Wu Jing.” Between “Lake Changjin,” “The Wandering Earth,” and the “Wolf Warrior” series, the 47-year-old action star has now headlined three of the top five grossing movies in Chinese history.
Outside of China, Wu’s playful mix of charisma and muscular nationalism has earned him comparisons with Hollywood stars like Sylvester Stallone, whose “Rambo” films were an obvious influence on the actor. While there’s something to these comparisons, they overlook the first half of Wu’s career — and how those years shaped the actor he is today.
Early in his career, Wu looked to be cut from the same cloth as past Chinese martial arts superstars like Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan, and Jet Li. Wu and Li both came up through the famed Beijing Wushu Team, albeit a generation apart. They studied under the same coaches, and both won national championships. In 1995, at the age of 21, Wu was handpicked by the famed Hong Kong martial arts choreographer Yuen Woo-ping — best known for his work on “Drunken Master,” “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,” and “The Matrix” trilogy — to play the lead in Yuen’s “Tai Chi Boxer.” Co-directing the movie alongside Yuen was Chang Hsin-Yen, the same man who had cast Li in his breakout film “Shaolin Temple” 13 years prior.
A still from the 1996 film “Tai Chi Boxer.” From Douban
But if Wu and Li shared similar roots, the paths available to them could not have been more different. After “Shaolin Temple,” Li struck up a mutually beneficial partnership with the Hong Kong action director Tsui Hark, before eventually making the jump to Hollywood. By the time Wu started acting in the late 1990s, Hong Kong action and martial arts cinema was past its peak, both creatively and commercially, and “Tai Chi Boxer” failed to launch Wu’s career the way “Shaolin Temple” made Li’s.
Looking back at past generations of martial arts superstars, one thing they all have in common is that they each established a unique and highly recognizable screen presence, almost from their very first screen appearance. Bruce Lee helped set the mold in the 1960s and 1970s: good looking, extremely tough, and with the air of a natural-born fighter. Jackie Chan then subverted the archetype with performances reminiscent of the vaudeville of Buster Keaton crossed with the “clown role” in Peking opera. Finally, Li’s baby face gave him a youthful energy that belied his clean and confident movement style.
However, for all their superficial differences, the roles the three men played were stereotypically masculine, and they rarely portrayed characters who were emotionally vulnerable.
Wu broke with his predecessors in this regard. It may be surprising, given his current macho image, but for decades, Wu was better known for his subtle expressions of male vulnerability than for his more brash kung fu style. Between the ages of 25 and 30, Wu starred in several martial arts-themed television dramas, often alternating between a young knight-errant on a mission to right wrongs and an emotionally troubled young man trapped in abusive relationships. As Meng Xinghun in 2001’s “Cema Xiao Xifeng,” for example, Wu plays a martial artist desperately infatuated with his adoptive mother and burning with hatred for his biological father, in a pale imitation of the Oedipus story.
If you took that version of Wu and transported him 20 years into the future, it’s possible he’d find himself cast, not as the avatar for a resurgent Chinese masculinity, but as a “little fresh meat” idol.
It wasn’t until his 30s that Wu made the jump back to the big screen. After 10 years in Hong Kong, however, he found himself typecast as the vulnerable, long-suffering fighter. His unique vulnerability, combined with his marbled physique, made him an object of fascination and objectification for his directors in ways that Jackie Chan and Bruce Lee never were. For example, in 2006’s “Fatal Contact,” Wu plays a good-hearted but impoverished Peking opera actor who gets drawn into an illegal prizefighting ring in Hong Kong. Director Dennis Law lets his camera linger on Wu’s body, opening with a series of dazzling cuts between shots of Wu striking beautiful poses on stage before cutting to backstage, where he removes his shirt to reveal his rippling muscles.
In 2015’s “SPL II: A Time for Consequences” — released the same year as the first “Wolf Warrior” installment — Wu plays an undercover police officer struggling not to fall into the abyss. The character first appears in a Thai prison, beaten and near-naked. He is quickly hosed down with a water cannon while the well-dressed villain stares at his tortured form. Director Cheang Pou-soi seems to ask whether violating such a perfectly sculpted body isn’t more interesting than asking it to fight.
A still from the 2015 film “SPL II: A Time for Consequences.” From Douban
While Hong Kong directors saw Wu Jing’s body and emotions as objects to be shown off and exploited, he was laying the groundwork to take his career in a different direction. You can see glimmers of this in the first “Wolf Warrior” installment, which he also directed. Although his character, Leng Feng, is poorly defined and the film’s message that “anyone who offends China, no matter how remote, must be exterminated” is much too on-the-nose, it was clear that Wu’s career had reached a turning point.
In “Wolf Warrior 2,” released two years later, the first film’s promise is paid off. While English language coverage likened the movie to the later “Rambo” films, Wu’s true achievement was bridging the two sides of his public image by proving it was possible to film a classic Chinese “knight-errant” story using more global and commercialized cinematic language — a feat he pulls off for at least the first 115 of the film’s 120-minute run time.
The movie opens with Leng Feng violating military and criminal law to teach the evil boss of a real estate company a lesson, quickly establishing him as a modern-day version of the principled characters Wu used to play. Then, in order to exact vengeance on the people who supposedly killed his wife, he exiles himself to Africa, where he saves lives, kills bad guys, and settles blood feuds with flair. It’s a chivalric tale with guns instead of swords, and Africa in place of the chaotic jianghu setting of classical Chinese martial arts novels and films.
Wu still puts his character through the wringer for the audience’s benefit, of course. Leng Feng is a role he’s played time and again throughout his 20-year career, a man who’s suffered trauma and fights bravely to the very end.
A still from the 2017 film “Wolf Warrior 2.” From Douban
In the film’s controversial final five minutes, however, Leng Feng suddenly stops fighting. He throws away his rifle and brandishes the Chinese flag in order to help his fellow expatriates safely cross a battle zone. Leng Feng and the flag in the same frame create a direct and abrupt tonal shift — linking the nation to his hunt for and commitment to justice, exactly the image China seeks to project in a changing world.
It’s a clever strategy. In that moment, Wu’s identity shifted from a recurring player in schlocky Hong Kong action films to an actor-director of Chinese war movies. As the owner of a body that has long been looked at and objectified, Wu undoubtedly wanted to regain his subjectivity. In doing so, however, he inevitably had to rely on national pride, binding his body to the national will and image.
In a moment, Wu — who was seemingly born too late to ever become a crossover star — elevated his image from “victim” to “savior” and became a nationalist hero. Since then, he has set several box office records in China by reinventing both the Chinese war epic and the action star archetype, creating a sort of shared universe of myths regarding contemporary China’s place in the world, and by extension, his own. In “Wolf Warrior 2,” he quite literally drapes himself in the flag to save civilians; in “Lake Changjin” he personifies the bravery of the Chinese soldiers who fought in Korea.
With each iteration, his characters’ heroism — and their reflected glory — grows more exaggerated. We joke that the only person who can beat Wu Jing is Wu Jing, but the real box office lesson of the past five years is this: The only thing that can beat China is the possibility of a bigger, bolder, more confident China.
Translator: David Ball; editors: Wu Haiyun and Kilian O’Donnell.
(Header image: Visual elements from @吳京 on Weibo, edited by Ding Yining/Sixth Tone)