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Patriot in Wolf's Clothing
New-genre Chinese film becomes top grosser at home and abroad
By Li Nan | NO. 35 AUGUST 31, 2017

Though only in his early 40s, Wu Jing, director and hero of China's top-grossing film Wolf Warrior II, has white hair. The 270-day-long grueling shooting for the film aged the kungfu star.

Wolf Warrior II, mainly inspired by the evacuation of Chinese from Libya in 2011, revolves around a fictitious former operative of the Chinese People's Liberation Army (PLA) special forces, Leng Feng, and his one-man mission to save both Chinese and locals from armed coup plotters and mercenaries in an unspecified African country.

The film claims several firsts in the world, including the first protracted single shot underwater lasting 160 seconds without any cuts, which nearly led to Wu drowning and the first tank-skidding scene ever, for which he learned how to drive a tank in a real PLA special forces camp. Establishing the trend of military-themed action films in China, it cost every penny in Wu's savings.

But now all that labor is paying off. Wolf Warrior II raked in 5.2 billion yuan ($780.4 million) 28 days after it was released on July 27. It's also listed among the world's 100 highest-grossing films on Boxofficemojo.com, the only non-Hollywood blockbuster to be in the list. Over 140 million moviegoers have watched it in less than a month, making it the most watched film in a single territory.

Wu credits the success to luck. "When a film or drama becomes a phenomenon, it's because of luck, not because of the creator," he said.

But that's not an accurate picture.

"Wolf Warrior II is a sincere film. I can feel the production team's efforts through its visual effects," Chen Siqin, an assistant research fellow with Beijing Film Academy, told Beijing Review.

 A still from Wolf Warrior II (COURTESY PHOTO)

Waiting for his era

The film has transformed Wu into a super kungfu star and an A-list director in China.

Wu, born into a martial arts-practicing family in Beijing in 1974, won six martial art national championships before entering the entertainment world. Though he played the lead in dozens of kungfu films and TV dramas since 1995, he failed to rise to fame like his fellow actor Jet Li, an acclaimed kungfu star and hero of Zhang Yimou's 2002 hit film Hero.

"Every martial artist wants to usher in his or her own action era," Wu had said longingly in umpteen interviews. But how to do it himself? He got lost in his screen career after nearly seven lackluster years playing cops, killers and Shaolin monks in Hong Kong since the early 2000s.

The turning point probably came in May 2008, when Wu volunteered to help in the relief efforts following an 8.0-magnitude earthquake in Wenchuan County in southwest China's Sichuan Province that killed nearly 70,000 people. There he was deeply moved by the dedication of PLA soldiers who, though exhausted, raced against time to rescue survivors. It made him decide to make a film on PLA troops, highlighting the heroism of China's tough men on screen.

In 2012, Wu played the leading role in a TV drama series, I Am a PLA Special Forces Operative, which was co-produced by the art arm of the PLA's Nanjing Military Area Command, now part of the Eastern Theater Command. To play this role convincingly, he trained in a PLA special forces camp for 18 rigorous months.

"During the training, I learned how tanks work in tandem with helicopters and the ground forces and how explosions can impact helicopters. It gave me a good grounding for directing the Wolf Warrior series," Wu told Beijing Review.

The first film in the series, Wolf Warrior, is about how Leng and his fellow PLA special forces operatives save the day when they are targeted by a vengeful drug lord and his mercenaries at the border. An underdog before its release, the film had few takers willing to invest in it. Wu mortgaged his house and shot it on a stringent budget. It was screened in 2015 after seven years' preparations, earning 545 million yuan ($81.79 million), nearly six times higher than insiders' expectations.

But the box-office hit of Wolf Warrior didn't make it easy for its sequel. Wu, in order to create a credible superhero, decided to base Wolf Warrior II on the evacuation of Chinese from the Libyan war zone in 2011, which meant shooting part of the film in Africa.

What's more, he preferred live action to animation for many stunning scenes. Real tank chases, on-the-spot filming in an African slum, one-on-one fights as well as the tight budget scared off many actors. The actress who was originally meant to play the heroine dropped out right before the filming started when she asked for more payment and was turned down. Wu's old friend, Hong Kong actress Celina Jade, came to the rescue, stepping into her shoes.

Nine months of hard work and dozens of scars later, the shooting of Wolf Warrior II was finally over with 4,077 individual shots, many of which are unprecedented and breathtaking. Then it became a blockbuster.

"Wolf Warrior II is much more exciting than its prequel, rousing patriotism in moviegoers," Lin Chilei, a 37-year-old teacher in south China's Hainan Province, told Beijing Review. Lin, a big fan of Wolf Warrior, went to watch its sequel on the second day of the release.

The Wolf Warrior series has not just catapulted Wu into fame, but also carved out a new career path for him. "Military-themed films are a new option, combining kungfu and action movies. It's feasible. For me, my life has just begun," Wu said.

A still from Wolf Warrior II (COURTESY PHOTO)

A long way ahead

Wolf Warrior II is also being regarded as being on par with Hollywood in quality. "It is a creative hybrid of Chinese values and Hollywood blockbusters," said Yin Hong, a Tsinghua University professor, at a seminar in Beijing in August. Yin said Wolf Warrior II combines a Rambo-style fighter with Chinese symbols such as the national flag and passport, creating the Chinese version of the military superhero popularized by Sylvester Stallone's Rambo series of films in which he also played the eponymous hero.

Different from the other hits in the Top 100 list whose box-office revenue came from diverse regions, 99 percent of Wolf Warrior II's ticket sales come from the Chinese mainland. It has made some observers say that Chinese films still have a long way to go to win international audiences.

How to present wars in a more humanistic way is a problem for military-themed action films, Chen said. Yin echoed that, saying Wolf Warrior II is short on instilling a sense of humanitarian care, and has excessive bloodshed. "Without respect for every kind of life, Chinese films can never go global," he warned.

But in Wu's opinion, what is unique to China may wow the rest of the world as well. "We need to be faithful to our original aspiration and figure out a way to project our indigenous culture onto the international screen," he said.

Efficient global distribution and promotional channels are another prerequisite for China's films to go global. "Most Chinese films reach the international market by selling their overseas distribution rights. None are distributed and promoted directly like the U.S. blockbusters," said Jiang Wusheng, General Manager of United Entertainment Partners, one of the distributors of Wolf Warrior II.

Perhaps Wu will figure out how to overcome this hurdle when Wolf Warrior III hits the screens. For now, he's taking it easy and his white hair has turned black.

"I dyed it," he grinned.

Copyedited by Sudeshna Sarkar

Comments to linan@bjreview.com

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