Red Liberation Films: The New Action Cinema Movement in China?

There is a small but revolutionary cinema trend going on in China, that is more important than any other group of live-action movies being made. It is the new movement of Red Liberation action cinema.

Red Liberation films have been compared to or called “Main Melody” films, since they have arrived on the scene in 2017 with the bang that was Wolf Warrior 2. A Hollywood-style throwback to the 80s & early 90s White Savior action films: the Rambo sequels, Commando, Chuck Norris’ Delta ForceTrue Lies.

By Ryan Carroll, Managing Editor

March, 2018.

Films that have a very clear cut, and often stereotypical (i.e. racist) villain – terrorist (Muslim), drug dealers, SE Asian revolutionaries that are also drug growers/suppliers, Eastern European models who are criminal baddies – and only the American hero, who while redeeming himself on a personal level at the same time, could stop them.

These American one-man armies could take down their enemies, alone, with either a tactical knife or a grenade launching bow & arrow!

There was always a sense of patriotism and protecting the world, from forces out to squash the ideals of Freedom in the White Savior flicks, but with the insurgence of Red Liberation action cinema this patriotism has turned into a new form of Jingoism. While also turning the lone white savior trope on its head.

There has been four major films since 2017 that have brought this new line of films from just, Main Melody propaganda films and straight up actioneers. Bringing about a new sub-genre of militaristic action films that is now being label as Red Liberation Cinema.

  • Wolf Warrior 2 (2017) – Box-Office: $875MMUSD
  • Operation Mekong (2017) – Box-Office: $173MMUSD
  • Extraordinary Mission (2017) – $23MMUSD
  • Operation Red Sea (2018) – $625MMUSD projected / $495MMUSD current

What sets these films apart from their Hollywood counterparts is, that it is not the Lone Savoir from China who in the end saves the day all by himself, but he is able to save the day with the aid of the Chinese military or special police force. As highlighted at the end of Wolf Warrior 2, by calling in a missile strike from the Chinese navy.

Most observers in China, and the West, have labeled these film as Main Melody films, which are propaganda films produced by the August First Film Studio (the official People’s Liberation Army’s production facility and company), China Film Group (the Beijing Government), their local equivalents, or produced by private companies with incentives to do so from the local, state, or Beijing governments.

Main Melody films tend to be about the Chinese fight against the Japanese occupation, and to a lesser extent the Chinese Revolution, with the peasants (the people) providing the most crucial aid in the People’s Liberation Army’s victory. A victory that could not have been won without it.

If you have ever lived or spent considerable time in Chinaland and turned on the TV in the afternoon. You would have seen at least one, some days multiple, TV series or movies about this subject specifically. Many times featuring caricatures of Japanese bumbling soldiers that would have put Mickey Rooney’s Breakfast at Tiffany’s infamous portrayal to shame!

What we are seeing in this new wave of action cinema that is Red Liberation films, veers from these propaganda tropes, placing the action in a very modern worldwide context, and are being made by private film companies. To make a profit.

Now, it is not to say that, there is no influence from the Regulators or Beijing to have Main Melody undertones, or to portray something in a very specific lighting. This is most definitely true, and it is still obviously there.

But, there is something here that is tapping more into a sense of Nationalism of a people finding their place on the world stage, as a true world power – both Soft & Hard. Than just propaganda itself.

Red Liberation films do not have to be propaganda, just like Antoine Fuqua’s films in Hollywood have revitalized the Lone Savior trope that was so prevalent in the 80s & 90s. With his films, Tears of the Sun and Olympus Has Fallen, coming to mind most, followed by The Equalizer, to a lesser degree.

Flash American might, while not doing so at the same time.

Chinese audiences are beginning to mature in their box-office taste and outings, and the need for the government to make a Red Liberation film through the August First Film Studio is both, not necessary and not something the Studio can actually duplicate.

Private film studios from Perfect World Pictures to Bona Film Group to Beijing Culture, have organically stumbled upon this new action cinema revolution. No one expected Wolf Warrior 2 to be the breakout movie that it was, as Wolf Warrior was just a modest hit in 2015 with $90MMUSD at the box-office.

Private film studios in China were, following Beijing’s wish to push Soft Power and tout the One Belt, One Road Initiative. While also realizing a rise in 3rd & 4th tier movie going preference. To see films that reflect their National Pride and China’s presence as a World Military Power.

The purchasing power of the 3rd & 4th tier cities has propelled the overall audience taste in China, as the country looks for new growth in their box-office. 2016 showed the demand for cinema screens, in regards to the actual ticket purchasing, is beginning to show signs of saturation.

Hence, a drive to find films that suit local tastes, of areas and demographics, that are still showing signs of growth. Areas and demographics that hold stronger views of nationalism than their more affluent East Coast city counterparts of, Beijing, Shanghai, and Guangzhou. Which just happened to correlate with the Central Government’s sensibility to create more high profiled Main Melody Films.

Red Liberation films are not Main Melody films but they are not just pure escapes action cinema. They lie somewhere in-between and have dived head-on into Hollywood style big action set pieces.

As Red Liberation cinema, is a cinema made to make money.

This is a huge difference and why Red Liberation films are separate from Main Melody films such as the Founding of New China trilogy:

  • Founding of a Republic (2009) – Box-Office $62.5MMUSD
  • Founding of a Party (2011) – Box-Office $58MMUSD
  • Founding of an Army (2017) – Box-Office $60MMUSD

BUT. We should take all of these “figures” with a grain of salt. As they all are inconspicuously similar, for being wildly varied films, and it is no secret that their ticket sales are padded by movie theaters across the country. Through state-sanctioned BO fraud.

It is known that schools, companies, and the like, buyout entire screenings for their students and workers to (mandatorily) attend.

Although, we should consider that much of Founding of an Army‘s first weekend success is probably real. As the movie was packed with “Little Fresh Meet” teenage or early 20s pop heartthrobs, such as Lu Han (who, admittedly, I thought was a really pretty girl for an incredibly long time….). That brought girls to the darkened cinema screens.

The Founding of New China trilogy are all “historical” films with a blatant propaganda agenda behind them, and all take place in China during important periods of the Communist Party’s rise to power. With all of them taking place inside China, telling the story of how China was reborn into the modern world.

Red Liberation films are set in contemporary times, with contemporary concerns of spreading China’s message outside of its borders. A message of its international strength and citizens, to people around the world – and by world, they mean people and audiences specifically inside its own border of the Middle Kingdom.

What sets Red Liberation films apart, or as a sub-genre, is that unlike Main Melody films, which tend to be set in real historical time periods, the Second Sino-Japanese War (WWII Pacific Theatre) or the Chinese Revolution. Red Liberation films take place in fictionalized countries for their war films, or in the Golden Triangle of SE Asia for drug trafficking films.

Both posing existential crises to the Chinese. As an outside threat that is both real and non-existent to China.

The jingoistic war films take place in undisclosed or fictionalized countries and even though they are not real, they present a reality in the rural Chinese mind of China’s place in the world and threats to it.

Wolf Warrior 2 takes place in an unnamed African country – though it is known to be Djibouti, the country that hosts China’s first ever foreign military base. On a continent that China has invested a considerable about of debt for natural resources, that most Western countries will not tap. Due to the conflicts or suppression involved in those African countries, such as Sudan.

Posing a real fear that China will have to take part in some form of armed conflict, if they are to maintain their existence in obtaining those natural resources. The other form being a perceived threat of an “other” i.e. Muslims. A page ripped straight out of the Hollywood go-to bad guy handbook, but like the U.S. this other is also a real treat to China’s sovereignty.

I am not just referring to China’s northwestern corner, or Turkish Muslims, but a treat that is the same as the one that exist in Africa. Where their presence to obtain natural resources, or to build their One Belt, One Road Initiative, crosses paths through areas that houses Muslim extremest.

Operation Red Sea is inspired by a real evacuation, led by the Chinese Navy, from Yemen during the breakout of the armed uprising that occurred there. Like Wolf Warrior 2Operation Red Sea approaches this real place through a fictitious setting, in the brutal Arab country of Yewaire.

A not so subtle turn on the country of Yemen.

While Operation Red Sea faced jihadist and extremist in a fictionalized Muslim nation, Wolf Warrior 2 went up against American military villains – be it, mercenaries. Soldiers of Fortune, men with-out countries.

This not only provides Red Liberation films as a way to show China’s military might, without having the argument of who would really win in the conversation. It also provides a conduit to get around the censorship rules of the Beijing film regulators.

A conduit that just a few years ago would not allow for the likes of, Operation Mekong and Extraordinary Measures, to exist. A censorship regulation that filmmakers have maneuvered around, by placing all the drugs, dealers, and gangsters outside of China. Creating another existential threat of an “other” from outside the borders of China.

This one stemming from the real life issues that Beijing is facing through a growing drug abuse trend.

Though the Golden Triangle is a real place, it is one that still holds an air of mystery to it and is not a country unto itself, but a lawless land resting between three country’s borders.

Operation Mekong is based on the real story of Mekong River Massacre that left 13 Chinese “fishermen” dead, by the hands of a local drug kingpin. Now the minutia of the real event is up to the viewer’s own conclusion, as the film is not focus on this.

Rather Operation Mekong centers around a group of special police who cross down across the border into the Golden Triangle, to apprehend the drug lord. A situation that did happen but it was Thai police who arrested and extradited to China themselves.

These details are of no importance to Red Liberation films as it does not serve the jingoism, that has replaced the propaganda of Main Melody films, to the Chinese audience. An audience that is heavily 3rd &4th tier, and ones with lower levels of education, income, and exposure to the world outside of China.

Red Liberation films is the fastest growing form of cinema in the world, and one that is not going away anytime soon. As it not only serves a purpose to heighten the spirits of the Chinese peoples (Central Authority’s priority) but it is a cinema that fills the coffers of those making it (studio / producer / director’s agenda).

Red Liberation films will take a few years to wind down, as audiences continue to mature, and the subject matter begins to stale, but it will continue to flourish. Being the cinema to most likely elevate Chinese films to an internationally accepted level of production value.

Stay Tuned China Watchers!

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About the Author

Born and raised in the Missouri-Ozarks Ryan studied Film Production, and East Asian Culture, at the University of Kansas where he was a UGRA recipient that led him on a seven-year long, Journey From the West, to China. Where he worked with Warner Brothers, the China Film Group Corp. and the National Bureau of Statistics of China. Before returning to the States, where he specializes in Chinese Anime & Comics, China’s Box-Office, and Chinese entertainment-tech industries. He has a dog in China, Abigail, and a dog in the Arkansas-Ozarks, King Blue, who help ease his anxiety of suffering from the “Two-Dimensional Complex” that is trying to understand the Culture Industry landscapes of the Middle Kingdom.