Contemporary Chinese Cinema is a column devoted to exploring contemporary Chinese-language cinema primarily as it is revealed to us at North American multiplexes.
This year’s Lunar New Year week was the biggest ever, almost doubling the box office take from last year, with grosses over 850 million American dollars. Traditionally the busiest movie-going time in the Chinese-speaking world, packed with crowd-pleasing star vehicles, this year’s holiday was dominated by four major releases, each of which was also released in North America.1 Three sequels opened here on February 16th, The Monkey King 3, Monster Hunt 2 and Detective Chinatown 2, while Operation Red Sea opened the following Friday, February 23rd. While none of the four has had the impact stateside of The Mermaid’s historic run two New Years ago, they’ve all proven to be hits at home. Soi Cheang’s Monkey King sequel opened first, racking up big numbers on Valentine’s Day, but it was quickly overtaken by Monster Hunt 2, the follow-up to the surprise hit of the summer of 2015, which had been the highest-grossing Chinese film ever until its record was obliterated by the aforementioned Mermaid. But Monster Hunt 2’s take was boosted by pre-sales, and its fortunes soon dropped when word-of-mouth got around, overtaken by Detective Chinatown 2 (both films ultimately reached about the same number as Black Panther’s take at the US box office during the same week). But as the New Year week came to a close, Red Sea was gaining fast, overtaking the number one spot in daily grosses. The question of which film will ultimately be the box office champ remains in doubt.
The Monkey King 3 is the latest installment in the franchise adapted from the classical novel Journey to the West, about a Tang Dynasty monk who travelled to India to bring back Buddhist scriptures, aided by a group of supernatural companions as they fight demons both allegorical and fantastical along the way. The first Monkey King, in 2014, starred Donnie Yen in the title role, with Chow Yun-fat as the Jade Emperor, ruler of heaven. A prequel to the journey itself, it’s the story of how the super-powerful Monkey King came to find himself buried under a mountain until the monk freed him. Yen gives his busiest performance, fidgeting distractingly in every scene, unrecognizable under heavy make-up, while Cheang populates his world with cartoonish digital creations and humans in animal costumes, like an especially cheap production of Cats. The movie isn’t without its charms, but its sequel, arriving in 2016, was a drastic improvement. Now with Aaron Kwok in the lead, and Gong Li as the primary antagonist, the White Bone Demon, the story joins the journey itself, with William Feng (memorable in a supporting role in Tsui Hark’s Young Detective Dee: Rise of the Sea Dragon) as the Tang monk. Much more in line with Cheang’s roots as an independent director of horror films, and with the sleek style of his two films for Johnnie To’s Milkyway Image studio (Accident and Motorway), The Monkey King 2 is one of the better Chinese blockbusters in recent memory, ably balancing its effects-heavy action with a genuine insight into the spiritual underpinnings of the Journey to the West story. It finished a distant second to The Mermaid in 2016’s Lunar New Year season.
Now with the third film in the franchise, Soi Cheang zigzags once again into a wholly different kind of film, from cartoon to horror to romance. The Monkey King 3 literally begins by flipping the world of the second film upside-down, from a snowy nightscape dominated by a giant image of death, to a sun-dappled riverland, the entrance to a verdant paradise populated only by women. Kwok and Feng reprise their roles, though the Monkey King will only play a minor role in this story. Cheang admirably, and unlike so many blockbuster sequels, refuses to hit the same character beats in film after film—his heroes learn and evolve. After the second film was driven by the Monkey King’s refusal to submit to the monk’s moral authority and deep conviction that even the most vile demon can be enlightened, in this film the Monkey King is fully in line and it is the monk who has a crisis of faith. As in Stephen Chow’s Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons, this conflict comes when the monk falls in love with a woman, in this case the queen of the Land of Women, played by Zanilla Zhao (one of the stars of Duckweed). There are side conflicts along the way, including a variation on The Shape of Water with Gigi Leung and a spectacularly animated River God, and an ill-advised subplot in which the Monkey King has to induce abortions in all the somehow-impregnated men in the monk’s party. But for the most part the film is a lush romance about two people who can’t ever be together, for both ideological and very real reasons (if the Queen leaves her kingdom, it and everyone in it will literally turn to dust). It’s lovely and Feng plays it very well, and it’s no surprise the film did well on Valentine’s Day, though it’s equally no surprise that it faded quickly thereafter: there’s simply more action and excitement to be found in its competition.
Monster Hunt 2, bolstered by pre-sales, set a new opening day record when it premiered on the 16th. It is a continuation of the story of the first film, in which the separate worlds of monster and human are roiled by the birth of a radish-looking Chosen One, who is fated to unite the two in peace and harmony. In the first film, that destiny is disrupted both by agents of an evil monster leader, who want to kill the kid, and humans, who want to eat him (because monsters are a delicacy). Defending him are his “parents,” Jing Boran and Bai Baihe, who work as monster hunters. Much of the humor of the first film comes from the fact that Jing gives birth while Bai does all the work, reversing traditional gender roles, and from cameo appearances by established stars from both Hong Kong (Sandra Ng and Eric Tsang) and the Mainland (Tang Wei and Yao Chen). Ng and Tsang briefly return in the second film, but almost all of the star power now comes in the form of Tony Leung Chiu-wai, playing an itinerant gambler who stumbles across the young monster’s path. Jing and Bai return as well, but have little to do aside from Jing’s suffering postpartum depression and vague hints about the disappearance of his monster hunter father. There’s a conspiracy of some type, involving the Monster Hunting Bureau and a Thanos-style evil monster king who briefly appears to set the plot in motion, but none of the story’s background or motivations are developed much at all, as this film, unlike the first, is clearly designed to merely be one chapter in a franchise (apparently two more Monster Hunts are on the way, along with a spinoff starring Leung). It’s by far the slightest of this year’s holiday films: all the edges and oddities of the first movie have been worn away in favor of an even more family-friendly entertainment.
Detective Chinatown 2 as well suffers in comparison with its predecessor, and the difference between the two is even more dramatic, if only because Detective Chinatown is significantly better than the first Monster Hunt. Itself a surprise hit from the winter of 2016 (it premiered December 31, 2015), the first film starred Wang Baoqiang (known in the US for serious roles in films like Blind Shaft and Jia Zhangke’s A Touch of Sin) as a manic and slovenly private detective in Thailand who gets framed for a murder. His visiting nephew, a shy, stuttering genius played by Liu Haoran, comes to his defense and the two try to solve the case while being chased by various factions of the police and gangsters. It’s a broad, funny film with a genuinely compelling and intricate locked room murder mystery at its heart, packed with inventive and exciting chase and fight sequences and a classic odd couple pair of heroes. The sequel offers more of the same, except less so on every front. The location is moved to New York, and makes ample use of the city’s locations: Chinatown, of course, but also Times Square and various parks and river fronts, the geography of the city itself becomes an essential part of the mystery. Unfortunately, that mystery is pretty easily solved (at least for American audiences), and with the personality conflicts between the two heroes largely being solved by the end of the first film, their interactions are a lot less compelling. The basic structure of dizzying puzzle-solving mixed with chase sequences is intact, but there’s nothing in this film as audacious as the one Oldboy-inspired slow-motion escape from the first one. But it’s a warm film, presenting a kind of utopian vision of international cooperation within its broad cultural stereotyping.
Operation Red Sea, on the other hand, ups the ante on Wolf Warrior 2’s brand of jingoistic Chinese nationalism. A propaganda film dedicated to celebrating the men and women and especially the hardware, of the Chinese military, it’s also one of the most exciting war movies in recent memory. Directed by Hong Kong’s Dante Lam, who got his start in the years just after the Handover with gritty crime dramas like Beast Cops and Hit Team, it’s an unrelated follow-up to his 2016 film Operation Mekong. Like that film, Red Sea is inspired by real-life events, in this case the evacuation of Chinese nationals from a war-torn Yemen in 2015 (Wolf Warrior 2 has basically the same premise, but set in Africa). Focusing on a SEAL-like team of special forces operatives, we follow them on their mission to rescue the Chinese consul along with some factory workers and a journalist, who finds herself tracking an arms dealerin the middle of the revolution in this fictional country. The enemy is an ISIS-like group of terrorists who are fomenting the civil war while trying to obtain yellowcake uranium and build a dirty bomb. The structure is a men-on-a-mission story akin to a video game, with the team being sent behind enemy lines to rescue the civilians, but facing increasingly impossible odds along the way. From the opening prologue (when the heroes battle an unrelated gang of Somali pirates), the battle scenes are intense and deftly choreographed by Lam and his team, keeping the intensity of something like Black Hawk Down without sacrificing spatial coherence. There are no action movie super heroics, as in Wolf Warrior 2, rather the fights are all coordinated team efforts, with every member of the group contributing and suffering for the cause. The China First politics of it all, however, are quite wretched, as deranged as the virulent nationalism found everywhere else in the world, including the US, as is the fetishization of the technology and equipment of war. There’s an air of the ridiculous about it, especially in a final coda wherein the Chinese Navy appears to threaten approaching American battleships, at least from where we sit from outside the authoritarian regime (for dissident groups within China, the threats contained in these images are all too real). And, as with Wolf Warrior 2, the fact that military propaganda films are proving to be extraordinarily popular with the Chinese public (unlike such failed epics as the star-studded Founding of a Republic series) seems ominous.
But, on the other hand, it seems likely that the appeal of these films remains the same old blunt genre thrills of any other action movie, and that one is able to enjoy them without being brainwashed by the obviously silly propaganda, something American audiences have proven adept at doing in films ranging from 80s Cannon/Chuck Norris films to prestige epics like Saving Private Ryan (not to mention Red Sea’s true antecedents, American World War II propaganda films like A Walk in the Sun, Air Force or Wake Island). The best of the recent pro-PLA films, Tsui Hark’s The Taking of Tiger Mountain, Feng Xiaogang’s Youth, and, to a certain extent, Ann Hui’s Our Time Will Come, have subtly critiqued and questioned the nature of propaganda itself, and hinted at truths obscured by official ideology. Operation Red Sea is not one of those films, but what it lacks in subtlety it makes up for in brute, kinetic force, while its valorization of the resolve of the Chinese people is undercut by the horrific consequences of military violence. Taken alongside the feel-good ethos of the other three Lunar New Years hits, Operation Red Sea seems faintly ridiculous, striving too hard be the threatening knife edge behind Chinese soft power.