China’s latest propaganda-laden blockbuster, Operation Red Sea, has become the fourth-most lucrative film in the country, making nearly $500 million at the box office.
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To save a single Chinese office worker kidnapped by terrorists in a war-torn African country, a team of eight soldiers from the Jiaolong commando unit – China’s Navy SEALS – venture deep into conflict zones, finish their mission despite heavy casualties and intercept several tons of yellowcake uranium intended for a dirty bomb.
Think Black Hawk Down, only with more violence – and a heavy dose of Chinese nationalism.
Here’s what I got out of two hours at the theater yesterday:
Lesson 1: China is flexing its muscles in Africa
Operation Red Sea is based on a true story. The Chinese navy evacuated nearly 600 Chinese citizens from Yemen during the 2015 Yemeni Civil War. In the movie, the fictional country is called “Yewaire.”
The film kicks off with a perfectly orchestrated mission to save a Chinese cargo ship from Somali pirates.
It doesn’t take nearly as long as it takes US Navy SEALS to save Tom Hanks in Captain Phillips.
The real Chinese navy has been patrolling the Gulf of Aden, the strategic strip of water between Yemen and Djibouti, since 2008.
In 2017, China officially launched its first ever overseas military base in Djibouti.
The US has repeatedly expressed concern about its rival's growing military strength in Africa.
China’s Djibouti base sits next to a key US military base.
Recently the Djibouti government tried to claim an important container terminal, supposedly with the objective of giving it to the Chinese.
China has also sought to exert its influence in Africa through trade, aid deals and high-profile investment in public infrastructure projects, including a $3.2 billion railway linking the Kenyan capital of Nairobi to the port of Mombasa.
Lesson 2: China plays by the rules
The movie tries to stress China’s justifications for its military intervention, echoing the government’s emphasis on “peaceful growth.”
The government says it respects territorial integrity and sovereignty, and believes in principles of non-aggression and non-interference.
When the Jiaolong unit chases an escaping pirate, Chinese naval commanders repeatedly order its soldiers not to cross the Somali border.
The unit can only be sent into “Yewaire” with the full consent of the African nation’s leaders, while a military drone can only be dispatched with special approval.
China has never been slow to boast about protecting its people.
In real life, when hundreds of Chinese citizens were evacuated from Yemen in 2015, domestic press stressed the fact that US authorities had offered its own citizens no help.
But China's approach to its borders hasn’t been without controversy. It has come under fire for building up military installations on islands in parts of the South China Sea – which is claimed by several nations in the area.
Lesson 3: It’s China’s turn to save the world
In Operation Red Sea, the Chinese navy agrees to protect Yewaire’s top leaders when they're threatened by rebels.
Jiaolong commandos also decide to save more foreign hostages and intercept the transport of uranium, despite being heavily outnumbered by the bad guys.
There’s no shortage of touching moments, such as when a Chinese soldier risks his life to save a local man who has been forced to act as a suicide bomber.
Lesson 4: Patriotism sells
Operation Red Sea has made nearly $500 million to date, and the film is still in theaters.
“This is a milestone for mainstream Chinese movies,” said one five-star rater on Chinese review website Douban.
Similarly themed propaganda action flick Wolf Warrior II raked in nearly $900 million last year.
But Operation Red Sea is by far China’s most sophisticated propaganda action film to date.
It features Hollywood-style storytelling, mixing high-octane combat scenes with scenes of love, teamwork and personal sacrifice.
Much of that is attributed to director Dante Lam, previously famed for stylish hardcore gangster films. Lam told Chinese state paper Global Times: “We are not just making a regular film. We are making a film with the support of the Chinese Navy, so it’s an act of the state."
“The US is way ahead of us in making good military films,” said Lam. “Some people may look down on us and think a military theme is outdated, but this is our chance to say we haven’t been left too far behind.”
China's film industry seems to have found a new formula for box-office success.