Worst of the worst

Why China’s answer to the US movie Top Gun turned out to be a disaster

TopGun w

The original soared at the box office but China's <i>Top Gun</i> got a thumbs-down from audiences

The Pentagon has occasionally turned to Hollywood for a bit of pizzazz. In 2011, for example, the American military struck a sponsorship deal with the producers of X-Men: First Class. The goal: to convince recruits that they could live out their superhero fantasies on the battlefield.

But the template for the military’s cooperation with Tinseltown was forged 30 years ago by Top Gun. That film generated nearly $350 million at the box office but as far as the top brass was concerned it was an even bigger hit in terms of the boost it gave to the military’s image. The fighter pilot classic made the military lifestyle look so cool that the US Navy even set up recruitment desks at theatres playing the Tom Cruise film. “It turned the Hollywood-Pentagon relationship into a full-on Mav-Goose bromance,” the Washington Post recalled.

Since then Top Gun’s martial machismo has crossed the Pacific to China in some rather unexpected ways.

Four years ago the state broadcaster CCTV ran a report about a training exercise by the Chinese air force, with plenty of aerial dogfights. But eagle-eyed viewers were soon pointing out that the coverage had incorporated the final combat scenes from Top Gun itself. (CCTV quickly deleted online access to the item, and it has never commented on whether it borrowed the footage).

Then last year, the state-owned weapons maker AVIC produced another video which seemed to have been heavily inspired by scenes from Top Gun (there was even beach volleyball). It was made “to attract more young people to join the country’s development of aircraft carriers,” the Global Times explained.

So it was only a matter of time before China’s full homage to Top Gun arrived at cinemas, which it finally did this month.

Upheaval of Jiawu – like its American predecessor – shows off plenty of military hardware. Pride of place goes to the PLA Navy and its Liaoning aircraft carrier (for more on this vessel, see WiC250). Despite all the maritime tension in the region’s disputed seas over the past year or two, the filmmakers seem to have enjoyed extensive access to the jewel in China’s fleet. The production crew spent at least 11 months filming on the Liaoning, Beijing Evening News says.

As to the plot, the People’s Daily reports it’s a story of “how young men from different historical periods seek true love and take social responsibilities”.

Terrific as this sounds, the film’s marketing people decided to woo audiences with trailers promising Top Gun-esque drama. They don’t take too much imagining: plenty of cockpit action, with compulsory scenes of firm-jawed aviators sprinting across the Liaoning to their aircraft (in slow motion, naturally).

The timing of the film’s release looked to be impeccable too, with the Chinese celebrating the 70th anniversary of their victory over Japan in the Second Sino-Japanese War (or the Second World War to most non-Chinese). In fact, the title of the movie resonates more with memories of the First Sino-Japanese War of 1894, generally known in China as the War of Jiawu. That particular conflict ended in a dismal defeat. But no matter – patriotic sentiment is on a high this month, with Upheaval of Jiawu opening in cinemas during the same week as the massive military parade in Beijing.

The film also generated a lot of buzz on social media before it was launched. One popular source of comment was the casting of Zhao Yuying as lead actress. She’d belonged to the PLA’s Second Artillery Corps, serving as a magician in the entertainment unit. (Presumably her combat experience was limited to making the enemy disappear.)

So has Upheaval of Jiawu been a sure-fire hit? Surprisingly no. ChinaBoxOffice.com said it made just Rmb160,000 at the cinema (yes you read it correctly, that’s about $25,000), while review website 58921.com is ranking it as the 233th worst grossing movie this year out of 246. Cinema chains have been pulling it from their schedules because interest is so lacklustre and when WiC checked on Monday this week it was hard to find a theatre where it was still showing.

What went wrong? Well, despite its Top Gun pretensions, Upheaval of Jiawu is much more of a romantic movie. In fact, two love stories are told in parallel: Jiang Haixin (played by Zhao Yuying) is an art school student whose grandmother was a princess during the Qing Dynasty. After flashbacks from granny about how her first love went missing during the 1895 War of Jiawu, the younger Jiang decides to learn more about the conflict. Her efforts somehow lead to her bumping into a handsome officer stationed on the Liaoning aircraft carrier…

The slow-moving romantic plot has turned out to be a deep disapointment for the wannabe pilots who expected to see supersonic dogfights and Japanese planes shot out of the sky by Chinese aces.

“Whose idea was that? Why has a war movie turned out to become a love story?” one disappointed punter asked.

“To the stupid director of this movie, I [expletive used] your sister!” a less-restrained critic raged on the review site Douban.

With word-of-mouth like this, it’s easier to see why the takings for Upheaval of Jiawu have been so disappointing. As far as the audience was concerned, the movie clearly didn’t take their breath away…

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