Yesterday, Stuff reported that the 2017 Chinese-made propaganda blockbuster Wolf Warrior 2 was partially made in New Zealand. Sam Brooks watched it and – spoiler alert – found it weird as hell.
About halfway through Wolf Warrior 2 on Netflix, the unnamed leader of a revolution in an unnamed African country marches up to the American leader of a mercenary force and yells one of the most exquisitely bizarre lines of dialogue that I’ve had the pleasure of laughing at.
“How many times do I have to tell? We do not kill the Chinese. China is a permanent member of the UN Security Council and I need them on my side if I’m to take political power. You fucking asshole!”
It’s a bizarre message that represents how at odds Wolf Warrior 2 is with itself, both as piece of propaganda and a silly dumb action film. The revolutionaries in this unnamed African country are undoubtedly the villains, massacring scores of their fellow unnamed countrymen and haranguing our hero Leng Feng (Chinese film star Wu Jing, also the director and co-writer). So when one of them starts spouting opinions about China’s position in contemporary global geopolitics, it strikes an odd note.
But I guess when you’re watching a piece of propaganda, subtlety or nuance is a bit much to ask. And, apparently, so is coherence.
While the first you might have heard of it was the Stuff story, Wolf Warrior 2 was actually one of the most successful films of 2017, grossing nearly $900 million USD against a $30 million budget. That’s a fairly small budget for an action film – which really shows in the production values; there’s a lot out-of-sync dialogue and shoddy VFX work – but it’s pretty big budget for a Chinese film. Unfortunately, the budget did not extend to wigs:
While the film was not actually made by the Chinese government, it was made by Chinese state-owned enterprises, including China’s most prominent film producer, China Film Group Corporation (who are not messing around with any non-functional naming, no sir) and Bona Films. Which is like if New Zealand Post made a film about a courier that mentioned many times how beautiful New Zealand is, how nice it is to deliver mail in, and also how the government is right and anyone who criticises it is wrong. Actually, that sounds like a lovely film! Let’s make that.
There’s no question here: Wolf Warrior 2 is propaganda. We’re constantly reminded that the Chinese government is good and will always protect its people, even when they’re hanging out in an unnamed African country. On the other side of it, the revolutionaries – in fact anybody who opposes any kind of government or political power – are the villains.
Where it gets genuinely uncomfortable is the portrayal of the villains. For a mainstream action film, they are jawdroppingly brutal. The body count has to number in the low triple-digits, and the revolutionaries (and also the mercenaries they hire) are shown killing men, women and children in cold blood. They’re cruel in an almost cartoonish way, which is not unusual for an action film, but when all your villains are coded as specifically not Chinese (and more specifically American, or American-adjacent), it takes you out of the fun and reminds you that the people who made this film quite badly want you to think certain things.
Which is confusing, because Wolf Warrior 2 is a dumb action movie at heart. It opens with a massive tracking shot and an action scene in which our hero guns down a guy coming at him with a rocket launcher, and the camera follows the bullet. Also, they’re both on boats. It’s that kind of film, some of the time. Unfortunately, not enough of the time.
It’s also a film where, no shit, our hero catches a rocket with a chain-link fences, manages to hold the rocket aloft and unexploded, and then throws it to the side.
In moments like these, Wolf Warrior 2 doesn’t seem like propaganda. It seems like a vanity project by a guy who just really wants to make, and star in a big dumb action film. One with car crashes, big explosions, lots of guns, and completely unrealistic stunts. The Wikipedia page for the film notes that Wu Jing is the first ‘domestic actor’ to ever personally crash a tank into a car and crush it. Pierce Brosnan would like some words with you, Wu Jing.
The irony here is that the film is at its most dumb when it tries to be the earnest piece of state-sanctioned propaganda it absolutely is. This is obvious during some of the film’s weirder moments. At one point the female lead, played by Celine Jane who you might recognise from Arrow, explains that she’s been trying to reach the American consulate, and says the following line in earnest:
Twitter is, in case you were wondering, blocked in China.
We’re then treated to a canned recording as she actually rings the consulate, and then when she and Feng stop to have a moment, they witness some lions tearing the flesh off a carcass. He jokes: “There’s your GIs.”
But the film is at its most terrible and riotously funny during the film’s bloody climax.
Feng and his ragtag gang, including the one girl who has the immunity to the virus that the mercenaries/revolutionaries want (just go with it), are trapped in a factory with no hope of survival. People are being massacred left and right, in hails of bullets and storms of blood. Feng gets crushed underneath some debris, and everybody’s only chance is… the Chinese military.
One of the African women – who is absolutely an American actress not bothering with the accent part of acting – sings, I shit you not, one line of ‘Amazing Grace’ acapella before her voice is replaced by one belonging to an audibly different woman.
So Feng gets out his AGM phone and films the massacre as it happens, in flawless HD.
Why yes! AGM Mobile is a Chinese company! I’m sure that’s just a coincidence.
Feng live-streams the massacre to the Chinese navy, who are standing by on their battleships, watching in horror. A woman in uniform wipes her tears away.
And then the Chinese military bomb the shit out of the revolutionaries. They are the heroes, they save everybody, credits roll. It’s an absolutely wild choice for an action film to take the climatic moment out of the hands of its protagonist, but a sadly fitting one for a propaganda piece. People aren’t heroes, governments are.
Look, the propaganda in Wolf Warrior 2 isn’t aimed at us in New Zealand, unless the intended message is that revolutionaries in unnamed African countries have busted LookSharp wigs. It’s not convincing anybody watching from their shitty suburban flat that the Chinese government are heroes.
That’s not the problem here, though. The problem here is, as Thomas Coughlan reports, that Park Road Post’s work on it is part of a growing relationship between the New Zealand and Chinese film industries. Increasingly, it seems that the two nations have a quid pro quo going on – a little tax break here, a little access there – that could quite easily lead to censorship and influence one way or the other down the line.
Which is not great! But even as we decry films like this as propaganda, because they absolutely are, it’s probably worth noting that a lot of the action flicks that we – and I absolutely include myself here – consume on a regular basis are also pushing a political agenda. It’s just an agenda that we in the West happily swallow with popcorn and an obscenely large Coke.
There’s a reason why national militaries are enthusiastic supporters of war films (this one included), and it’s not out of the kindness of their hearts. Just take a look at the films supported, and funded, by the Pentagon in the US. Putting images, sounds and stories in people’s faces that subtly humanise the military – at least more subtly than Wolf Warrior 2 does it – inevitably means audiences will be more willing to look over its atrocities. One man’s propaganda is another man’s dumb fun.
And on that note, Wu Jing has confirmed that Wolf Warrior 3 is in the works.
Join The Spinoff Members for as little as $1 to help us hire more journalists and do more investigations. Or get a free Toby Morris-designed tea towel when you contribute $80 or more over a year.
The Bulletin is The Spinoff’s acclaimed daily digest of New Zealand’s most important stories, delivered directly to your inbox each morning.