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Why Are Nationalistic Themes Translating Into Box Office Success in China?

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On July 16, 2010, an oil pipeline at a port facility in the northeastern Chinese city of Dalian exploded as oil was offloaded from a tanker. The fire ignited by the explosion burned for nearly 20 hours. One firefighter, Zhang Liang, who was maintaining a pump feeding water from the bay to the firefighters in the depot, drowned in the oil-slicked shallows on July 20, after four days maintaining the pump. His drowning, the attempt to save him, and a startling image of his oil-covered body being carried from the water were documented by photographer Lu Guang.

On October 11, 2013 a fire broke out in a shopping mall in Western Beijing, and two firefighters, Liu Hongkun and Liu Hongkui, died inside the building fighting the blaze. While there were no photographers present inside the building, images of the two firefighters’ bodies being carried from the charred building later proliferated online. A recording of a speech given by a fire captain at the scene to a large group of mourning firefighters, encouraging them to extinguish the blaze, attracted further attention on social media.

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Chinese Moviegoers Flock to Patriotic Films on National Day

Both disasters serve, along with a non-fiction book about the Dalian disaster, as the basis for The Bravest, the first of three films released by Beijing production house Bona Film Group in the months before China’s October 1 National Day. The anniversary of the founding of modern China is already an important and politically significant holiday in the country under normal circumstances, but is suffused with additional significance in 2019, as the People’s Republic of China marks 70 years.

Alongside the tales of heroism depicted in The Bravest, which hit theaters on August 9, a narrowly averted airline disaster serves as the basis for the third film in the trilogy, The Captain, released on September 30. In between these two films was Mao Zedong 1949, a re-telling of the failed peace talks between Communist and rival Nationalist leaders outside Beijing in 1949, the Communists’ military campaign across the Yangtze river, and the capitulation of Nationalist strongholds in Nanjing and Shanghai.

mao zedong 1949 film poster

All three are entries in a patriotic genre loosely defined as zhuxuanlu (主旋律), and all three are commercial films with subtle and overt social and political imperatives, sometimes at odds with the characteristics of successful commercial film and sometimes not. All include primary source material and limited contextualization in the end credits. A number of patriotic films besides Bona’s hit theaters for National Day, and each one of them raises old, stubborn questions about the complex and not necessarily contradictory relationship between commercially successful media and political narrative, principal among them the urgent need to depict a cohesive, developed, and globally influential nation.

Each film raises old, stubborn questions about the complex relationship between commercially successful media and political narrative, including the urgent need to depict a cohesive, developed, and globally influential nation

Both events reenacted in The Bravest — Zhang Liang’s death in the water in Dalian, and the speech given by the fire captain outside a burning mall — are done so with remarkable veracity. Photographer Lu Guang’s original images are faithfully recreated, and the captain’s speech is performed verbatim. Truth to detail is so important to the filmmakers that the primary source material is included while the credits roll: the speech, newsreel footage of the Dalian fire, and many more images of exhausted, ashen firefighters cradling aluminum trays stacked with street food.

It seems at first that familiar disaster film tropes — a captain disgraced by the death of a younger firefighter, while another seeks his veteran father’s approval — have been grafted onto a film more concerned with producing an intentional memorial to the firefighters who died fighting very real blazes in Dalian and Beijing. In the case of The Bravest, action film cliche and real tragedy coincide, and the result is uneasy. It is clear that the film wants to be both a sober memorial and a profitable, action-driven flick that is ultimately pleasurable to watch — but the contrast is jarring.

The Captain, chronologically the third in Bona Film Group’s 70th anniversary trilogy, takes a narrowly averted airline disaster, Sichuan Airlines Flight 8633, as its source material. On May 14, 2018, 41 minutes after departing Chongqing for Lhasa, Sichuan Airlines 8633’s right-side cockpit window cracked, then shattered, sucking the co-pilot, Liang Peng, halfway out the window and depressurizing the cabin. The captain, Liu Chuanjian, successfully landed the plane from within the freezing cockpit in Chengdu twenty minutes later, after first descending to the lowest possible altitude. (Flight 8633 was some 23,000 feet above the Tibetan plateau when the windshield disintegrated.)

The Captain was helmed by Hong Kong director Andrew Lau, who is best known for gangster trilogy Infernal Affairs (the basis for Martin Scorsese’s 2006 film film The Departed) but has also lent his talents in support of glorifying the People’s Republic, most notably in his 2017 historical drama The Founding of an Army. The Captain is 111 minutes long, which is to say, 35 minutes longer than the actual flight it depicts. Accordingly, Lau dilates real time in order to build suspense in film time. The crisis in the cockpit — especially intense because the nature of the accident rendered communication between pilots or with air traffic control nearly impossible — succeeds on this count, but a 20-minute crisis can only be spread so thin.

The remainder of the film is filled with lavish sets depicting high-technology infrastructure, and many cuts between different departments of a well-qualified, frictionless bureaucracy. Besides Captain Liu and the Sichuan 8633 crew, the film is dedicated to the employees of the CAAC, China’s civil aviation department. Considerable film roll is expended on shots of Lhasa best described as promotional. Cut-and-paste characters — including indigenous Tibetans, a tour group, and an obnoxious, gaudy man in first class — fill the cabin. As in The Bravest, the demands of narrative are in conflict with political and social messaging that is neither subtle nor overbearing, like the depiction of well-managed and technologically advanced state, or the importance of listening to flight attendants and trusting pilots, who, one is reminded, are very well trained.

There is less subtlety in Mao Zedong 1949, which takes as its subject the peace talks between the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and Kuomintang (KMT) leaders at Xiangshan outside Beijing (then known as Beiping). In the film, an amiable Chairman Mao encourages peaceful but just reconciliation between the CCP and KMT for the prosperity of the Chinese population. KMT subterfuge and a run-in with a British naval ship on the Yangtze — the Amethyst Incident — nearly undermine the talks. The treaty finally agreed upon is ultimately refused by KMT leadership, who flee to Taiwan. Meanwhile, the CCP’s People’s Liberation Army crosses the Yangtze, liberates the KMT capital of Nanjing and financial hub of Shanghai, and politically unifies the country. The rest is official history.

In the cinematic language of Mao Zedong 1949, the sun shines brightly on Beiping, where a wholesome Mao simultaneously drafts founding documents and recommends love poems to a smitten couple — a soldier and a Xinhua news broadcaster. The KMT capital, however, is sullen and drained of color, as is a hopeless Chiang Kai-shek. Supporting characters illustrate central historical-political themes like land reform. At one point in the film, Mao sends a young soldier back to his village, where he finds his father and sister now have land to farm. The boy eventually volunteers for the Yangtze crossing, where he plants a flag on the KMT battery and is martyred in the process, looking up at the flag as the frame fills with red. KMT troops are almost entirely invisible, even as extras. Beiping spies, KMT leadership, and the British navy serve as the principal representatives of the Nationalist faction and their interests.

The origins of the PRC are obviously more complex than laid out in the film, but historically and politically significant material is in this case effectively adapted to the screen. The give-and-take of peace negotiations generates natural tension; the pacing is balanced; and Mao is depicted as genial, un-serious, even funny. Numerous supporting characters mesh better with the central plot than in either The Captain and The Bravest. As with the other Bona projects, Mao Zedong 1949 concludes with archival footage, this time of the founding ceremony in Tiananmen, Mao’s speech, and enormous crowds.

Restored color image of the founding ceremony of the People’s Republic of China in 1949 (Bona Film Group)

The Bravest met with considerable box office success, trailing only summer blockbuster Ne Zha for the first two weeks of its run and netting a reasonable 6.7 rating on Douban. Box office numbers for the week leading up to National Day put The Captain and Mao 1949 in the top two spots, with Douban ratings of 7.4 and 6.8.

As Golden Week — the seven-day holiday celebrating National Day — kicked off, daily tallies place seven-director extravaganza My People, My Country (8.2 on Douban) at the number one spot, which is to say that zhuxuanlu are being watched, if not smashing records.

According to some, the range of acceptable film content in China is narrowing, though success stories like Nezha, which is not burdened by the same imperatives as the Bona films, could indicate that there is space — and a market — for more inspired storytelling.

Daniel Weaver
    Daniel Weaver is a writer and a 2019 Fulbright Fellow researching Chinese contemporary art. You can follow him on Twitter (@danielaxweaver) and Instagram (@daniel_wherever) or contact him at danielaxweaver.com