Chinese blockbusters are politically revealing. They are also a lot of fun.
The first thing you notice about “Twister” – the big bad bad guy Donnie Yen fighting at the height of the 2010s Ip man 2 – is it huge. Imposing. Made of muscles. Even his wickedness is disproportionate. Oh, and no coincidence: he’s white. Western imperialism becomes flesh.
“I can kill you with two punches,” he growls to Yen.
It’s probably not a spoiler to reveal that the character played by Yen – perhaps best known to American audiences for playing a blind mystic in Thief one – go kick Twister’s ass. However, the yen must first take a beating. Twister, a fighter in the style of Western boxing, indeed treats the smaller Yen like a rag doll throughout the fight: when the punches land, they really Earth. Often like no, however, the punches don’t land. Yen might be small, he might not have Twister muscles, but he’s tough, elusive, and smart.
So of course the ruling British imperialists – the film is set in Hong Kong shortly after WWII – change the rules in the middle of the fight. They Cheat. No kick, Yen said, or you will be disqualified and lose the match. “We cannot let the West put us down,” laments one observer.
How Yen wins anyway: by hitting Twister’s mountainous biceps, then finishing him off with a flurry of punches to the face. Westerners end up being disgusted and angry; the Chinese public carries the yen on their shoulders. The good guys won. The bad guys have lost.
Standard price for an action movie, right? Well, certainly. “Rude nationalism”, as a critic rejected it? Undoubtedly.
Something more is happening, however. In Ip man and many other studio films from the past 20 years, China tells a story about what it has in mind as the country becomes a 21st century superpower. It’s a story about how the country sees itself in relation to the rest of the world. Americans who are increasingly focused on competing with China – and even considering the possibility of a war to defend Taiwan – should probably be careful.
Indeed, if you want to start understanding the challenges of US-China relations and how Beijing wants to position itself in the world, you could do worse than a movie marathon over the holidays. That’s true for many cinemas around the world, including ours – after all, even American movies like the next one. Top Gun: Maverick must secure the Ministry of Defense approval of their intrigues before using military resources, with UNITED STATES! UNITED STATES! results. But China has long been an enigma for Americans, and an easier one to understand for anyone with a Netflix, HBO Max, Hulu, or Peacock subscription.
You can start with Jet Li’s hero, a 2002 film that functions as a sort of origin story for China itself. Then you can move on to another Li movie, Intrepid, which depicts the demise of the Qing dynasty at the start of the 20th century and the rise of the Chinese republic. Or you can try Bodyguards and assassins, a star affair that takes place at the same time. And if you’re already a Donnie Yen fan, there’s Legend of the Fist: The Return of Chen Zhen – a sort of sequel to that of Bruce Lee Fist of fury – located just before the invasion of China by Japan in the 1930s.
Many of these films take place at a time when China was under the control of foreigners, including the British or the Japanese. It is a painful time, a time in the history of the country where he often called himself “the patient from Asia. “In modern films, however, those years have been redefined as the foundations of China’s ultimate triumph over these intruders – and the glorious rise of the Chinese Communist Party. The underlying message: China must confront the outside world with force. or be exploited once more.
“When they tell this story, this story is also promoted by the Chinese government to justify the rise of the Communists and the rule of the Communist Party,” Thomas Chen, professor at Lehigh University and culture expert, told me in 2017. Chinese pop. “Because of the Communist Party, the West has been driven out – and once again China is in charge and in control of its own destiny. This message is also carefully checked: Big studio films in China are not made and released without government approval, although independent filmmakers say they still have a certain room for cautious creativity, and the country has a rich and robust history to challenge the cinema.
Still, lest all of this viewing feel like such a dark duty, it’s worth noting here that these films are truly entertaining, filled with expert action scenes and inventive fight choreography that can rival anything that comes out. from Hollywood. Yes, there is an element of propaganda in these films, but again, this is not an exclusively communist phenomenon either (just watch a film by John Wayne). Specifically, like Western blockbusters, Chinese films are also often amusing.
It’s the Ip man quadrilogy that probably does the best messaging and entertaining job among modern-era Chinese films widely seen in the West. The yen plays the title character – a great martial arts master who in real life was Bruce Lee’s mentor – as a reluctant warrior pressed into action forever. (Ring familiar?) In the first film, the Japanese are the bad guys. In the second: the British. The third? Let’s just say Mike Tyson made an appearance. And in the last installment, Ip Man travels to 1960s California, only to encounter violent anti-Chinese racism. He decides to return home to Hong Kong and teaches his son how to fight.
None of this plays out too much heavy hand, however. “Ip man is popcorn cinema at its best, full of catchy, well-choreographed fights and historical dramas, ” The edge concluded Last year.
While Yen beats all comers in these films, he also occasionally offers an olive branch to the rest of the world. “By fighting this match, I’m not trying to prove that Chinese martial arts are better than western boxing,” he said at the end of Ip man 2. “What I really mean is that even though people have different statuses in life, everyone’s dignity is the same. I hope from that point on we can start to respect each other. “
It remains to be seen whether peace and dignity will eventually prevail in the real world. But if you don’t go and see these movies, they might find you eventually: the Chinese film industry is growing by leaps and bounds. In 2021, the highest grossing movie on Earth is not F9, the latest James Bond movie, or whatever Marvel. It is The Battle of Changjin Lake, made to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the Chinese Communist Party, which tells the story of the Korean War battle known to Americans as the Battle of Chosin Reservoir. Needless to say, Americans aren’t the good guys in this version.