It took Wu Jing seven years to produce and direct Wolf Warrior. The film was perceived as a gamble: the action star, albeit a familiar name in China, did not have the same commercial appeal as other martial arts heroes like Jet Li and Donnie Yen. But Wu was adamant. So when he failed to raise the money to make the film, he decided to sell his house to fund it. He personally invested Rmb80 million ($11.98 million), more than half of the 2015 movie’s Rmb150 million budget. “I might be able to make a killing, or I could lose it all overnight and will be left with nothing,” he told his fiancée at the time.
But production soon ran over budget. To support their future son-in-law (or perhaps worried that their daughter would have nowhere to live), Wu’s in-laws chipped in with their own money at the last minute so filming could go on. Thankfully Wolf Warrior became a runaway success, taking over Rmb500 million at the box office.
Not taking any time off, Wu got straight down to making the sequel. Like its predecessor, Wolf Warrior 2 was behind schedule and over budget, and it ended up costing over Rmb200 million compared with the original estimate of Rmb80 million. But the gamble has again more than paid off. Since its premiere in late July, it has dominated the Chinese box office. And last week, it officially surpassed Stephen Chow’s The Mermaid as China’s best performing movie ever. As of early this week, it had raked in Rmb4.6 billion, with industry observers believing that ticket-take could surpass Rmb6 billion by the end of its run.
The Rambo-like story finds Wu’s character in an unnamed African city, guiding a group of innocent bystanders through a bloody revolution to the safety of the Chinese embassy. Despite being told by government officials to stay out of trouble, he decides to launch a one-man rescue mission that takes him to a Chinese-invested hospital and a Chinese-financed factory that have been targeted by vicious mercenaries.
The movie also stars American-Chinese actress Celina Jade and American actor Frank Grillo (as the villain).
“This film is so exciting I was on the edge of my seat the whole time!” one netizen gushed on Douban, a film review site.
“It is evident that Wu Jing has poured everything into it. Sorry if I have underestimated you in the past. You have shown that you are an experienced and hardworking actor and director,” another wrote.
One reason for the film’s surprising popularity is the lack of alternative viewing. The only movies posing much threat to Wolf Warrior 2 were psychological thriller Guilty of Mind and heist film The Adventurers. Hollywood films have been shut out by the annual summer blackout that lasts until September, when the market reopens to imports.
Critics have also sung the praises of the film’s action sequences. One scene that takes place underwater lasts over six minutes and Sohu Entertainment, a portal, says that actors and crew spent over two weeks in the water to film it (presumably they towelled off to sleep).
Another scene that shows Wu diving into the deep took 26 takes to satisfy the perfectionist actor-director. “I was so impressed with the scene that takes place under the water. It is something I have never seen in other films before. Wu Jing is also incredible: every punch and every kick is so real. It was an explosion of testosterone,” one reviewer complimented.
The patriotic element in the film has struck a chord with audiences as well, including one of its taglines: “Whoever attacks China will be killed no matter how far away the target is.”
The phrase is a remodelled version of a general’s vow to his emperor during the Western Han Dynasty (206 BC–9 AD) before a battle against foreign invaders, and a Chinese commander used the same line to motivate his troops at the end of the first film.
In the closing scene of the latest version the camera zooms in on Wu waving the Chinese flag, offering a reminder for audiences of the power and reliability of the Chinese military: “Remember, at your back stands a strong motherland.”
The action ends with a shot of a Chinese passport and the message that citizens will be protected by their country.
“We think this [the film’s success] is a triumph of the Communist revolutionary gene, a triumph of the Chinese dream for building a strong nation, and a triumph of the current spirit of the time,” its producer Zhang Miao told Xinhua.
Netizens concurred. “For two hours, the film tells the audiences that the Chinese military is invincible. It fills my heart with so much pride!”
Movies waving the national flag don’t always enjoy the same box office success, however. In the the same week that Wolf Warrior 2 was released another offering of the same genre – The Founding of an Army – was also screened across the country. Both films share similar characteristics: elaborate battle sequences and a heavy dose of patriotic messaging. Both were timed to celebrate the 90th anniversary of the People’s Liberation Army. But while Wolf Warrior 2 was making history, The Founding of an Army has fared much worse, taking Rmb300 million in ticket sales, far behind its original target of Rmb1 billion.
Most of the criticism of The Founding of an Army centres around the cast of so-called xiao xian rou, which literally means “little fresh meat” or young and good-looking teen idols. Critics say casting these young actors in the lead roles was not only unconvincing but also disrespectful to the country’s most venerated military commanders.
“Someone is trying to make a fortune off these important historical events,” Ye Daying, a grandson of Ye Ting, a former senior PLA military commander (who died in 1946), wrote on weibo.
Perhaps the need for more grizzled heroes also helps to explain the popularity of Wolf Warrior 2.
“We need our own tough guys, we need our own Sylvester Stallone or Jason Statham. And at this point Wu comes along with his Wolf Warrior series and made a big splash,” a film critic with Shanghai Daily wrote.
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