China’s Lunar New Year celebration is in full swing, and a new Hong Kong blockbuster film is hitting theaters just in time for the height of movie season: Operation Red Sea, described by the state-run Global Times as “a patriotic movie about Chinese marines carrying out a daring rescue mission.”
The movie is a fictionalized account of a mission to rescue Chinese citizens and foreign nationals from Yemen in 2015 as that country was engulfed in civil war. The real-life incident was the first time China’s military has helped foreigners evacuate during an international crisis. Several countries requested Chinese assistance in Yemen, including Germany, Canada, and the United Kingdom.
The movie takes a bit of dramatic license with just how close the fighting in Yemen came to the Chinese frigate involved in the rescue mission, which is not much different from how Hollywood often handles “ripped from the headlines” stories. In fact, the director said he was inspired by foreign films that spotlighted the patriotism and professionalism of their military forces.
What is interesting about Operation Red Sea is that the People’s Liberation Army Navy co-produced the film, whose reported $70 million budget is enormous by Chinese standards. It is not the first time the Chinese military has displayed an interest in working with filmmakers. 2017’s Wolf Warrior 2, an absolutely bonkers action film with Hollywood actor Frank Grillo as the villain, received enough military equipment from the PLA to invade a small country, if the production company had felt so inclined.
“When I asked [the Chinese navy] to what extent they can lend me help, the answer I received was ‘anything you want we will do our best to cooperate,’” director Dante Lam told the Global Times.
A “military insider” told the Global Times that the PLA is pleased with the results of its investment because the movie “showcased the Chinese Navy’s capabilities.”
“As China’s overseas economic interests continue to expand, the need to protect the nation’s interests has also risen amid increasing potential threats,” the insider explained. “China’s military vessels are a kind of moveable homeland that project a strong image during foreign visits, and are a top priority in protecting Chinese who live in overseas coastal areas.”
“China’s naval force long lagged behind. But entering the second decade of the 21st century, China’s overall maritime force has surpassed countries like Japan, the UK, and France, and is even better than the U.S. in some areas,” Beijing-based naval expert Li Jie said, explaining why the Chinese military has become so eager to show off its hardware.
Another difference in the new crop of military-assisted entertainment films is that they show Chinese forces in action on foreign soil, as in Operation Red Sea’s Yemen rescue and Wolf Warrior 2’s hero blowing up half of Africa in his quest for peace.
The Global Times also applauds Operation Red Sea for including a number of “side stories reflecting real political issues,” one of which involves “a Chinese naval patrol vessel driving away a foreign ship that had illegally entered the South China Sea.” We can only wonder what sort of real-life incident that subplot might have been based on.
Operation Red Sea does not seem to be as big of a hit with Chinese audiences as Wolf Warrior 2 or his own 2016 film Operation Mekong, a similarly fictionalized tribute to Chinese law enforcement. Operation Red Sea chugged in at fourth place with $20.7 million.
The big winner at the Chinese box office was Monster Hunt 2, which is basically China’s version of a Pixar film, helmed by a veteran of DreamWorks Animation who worked on one of the Shrek movies. It scored the biggest single day in the country’s history with a $97 million debut, bringing it within striking distance of the all-time worldwide box office opening, $119 million for The Force Awakens. That is why you will never, ever see Chinese villains in a Hollywood movie again, unless they are criminals who are also hunted by noble and highly competent agents of the Chinese military or law-enforcement community.