Sporting a fearsome array of silenced weapons, body armour and perfect hair, the squad of commandos silently takes up positions outside a roomful of hostages and their captors. After a flurry of hand signals, in goes a stun grenade, followed by a single file of soldiers. Within seconds, the terrorists inside are dead.
“We are Chinese marines,” the squad leader tells the grateful detainees, speaking in Mandarin. “We’re here to bring you home.”
This sequence takes place in Operation Red Sea, China’s highest-grossing movie of the year so far — $579m revenue and counting. Its producer, Bona Films, has taken tentative steps into a potential cinematic minefield: contemporary war movies.
Operation Red Sea has all the ingredients of a Hollywood blockbuster: a $70m budget, high-tech ships and planes on loan from the People’s Liberation Army, and an exotic foreign location — it was shot in Morocco.
But the American-style plot — heroic tales set in current conflict zones — is a new dimension in Chinese movies. “Contemporary themed war movies are still a sensitive area,” said Dede Nickerson, founder of Infinity Pictures in Beijing, adding that censors have recently relaxed limitations on which wars can be depicted on the screen.
Until about 12 months ago, Chinese war movies have almost never featured any war more recent than the second world war or the Chinese civil war fought until 1949. The 1950-53 Korean war — fought mainly against the US — was too fraught, as were more recent wars in the 1960s and 1970s against India, the Soviet Union and Vietnam. “Modern wars were too politically treacherous,” Ms Nickerson said.
But looser controls have coincided with the Chinese armed forces’ modernisation and higher global profile. PLA Navy vessels steam around the Middle East while Beijing’s traditionally risk-averse foreign policy appears to have been replaced with more swagger.
This new stance was reflected in 2016, when Bona Films released Operation Mekong, a fictionalised account of a 2011 incident in which 13 Chinese merchant mariners were murdered on the Thailand-Myanmar border. In response, an angry Beijing closed the Mekong to shipping and dispatched 200 police to neighbouring countries on joint patrols.
Beijing’s more muscular international profile is a new message for Chinese film-goers, who have been wildly receptive. This says two things about Chinese audiences in the past 12 months,” said Ms Nickerson. “One is, ‘we like visual spectacle’, and the second is, ‘we want to feel good about being Chinese’.”
As a result, more filmmakers are taking battlefield stories to the big screen. Last year, Spring Era Pictures released Sky Hunter, an aerial combat movie that was not only the directorial debut of actor Li Chen, but also the first movie to be produced in collaboration with the PLA Air Force.
The heroes of Operation Red Sea are the elite “Dragon Commandos,” a fictional special warfare operations force, who seek to free captured Chinese oil workers. In 2015, a Chinese destroyer participated in a real-life rescue operation when it sailed into Yemen’s Aden harbour, took on evacuees, and sailed out again four hours later.
But what reality lacked in pyrotechnics, karate fights and sniper duels has more than been made up for in the star-studded cinema version that has captured the box office and the public’s imagination. Operation Red Sea, released in February, continues to ring up box-office receipts.
The only bigger Chinese film in recent memory is yet another war epic, Wolf Warrior 2, which smashed box office records last year and became the biggest domestic Chinese film of all time with $874m in revenue in 2017.
This crop of films is also noteworthy for showcasing Chinese advanced weapons. Operation Red Sea featured a Type 054A frigate and a Type 071 amphibious transport dock, while Sky Hunter included aerial manoeuvres by the J-20 stealth fighter and a Y-20 military transport. Wolf Warrior 2, which had help from the army, showcased the PLA’s Type 59D tank and Type 05 self-propelled howitzer.
Notoriously strict Chinese film censors have begun to lighten up in other areas. Films about zombies and ghosts, which long fell foul of the Communist party’s injunctions against “superstition”, are now selectively allowed.
Science fiction is another former taboo being broken. August sees the premiere of The Meg, a $150m movie featuring Jason Statham, Li Bingbing and an extinct aquatic dinosaur produced by Warner Bros, Hong Kong’s Flagship Entertainment and a consortium led by Shanghai-based China Media Capital.
Much as films such as Rambo (1982) and Top Gun (1986) helped American audiences imagine a post-Vietnam future for their military, the new crop of Chinese films introduced movie-goers to the idea of China as a superpower, according to film critic Guo Songmin.
“Frankly speaking,” he wrote on his blog, “in these several movies, China has imagined itself as another US.”