Not so stealthy anymore

Top actress reveals state secrets in novel approach to promoting her film


Fanning patriotism: Fan Bingbing stars in Sky Hunter

Even though The New York Times called the film “the best non-documentary American feature made yet about the war in Iraq,” the US military did not want anything to do with Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker.

When asked why the military chose not to endorse the film, which went on to win several Academy Awards including Best Picture and Best Director in 2010 , an army-entertainment liaison responded: “Typically [we support films that] help the American people understand their army better, and there were some elements of The Hurt Locker that we felt didn’t accomplish that. I thought it was an entertaining movie… [but not] necessarily realistic.”

China’s military, on the other hand, is much more eager to give its film industry a helping hand in showcasing its fighting prowess. Sky Hunter, a film backed by the People’s Liberation Army, is scheduled for release on October 1, China’s National Day.

The movie tells the story of a group of elite soldiers in the airforce as they resolve a hostage crisis and foil a terrorist plot. It stars A-list actress Fan Bingbing along with her boyfriend-actor Li Chen, who also made his directorial debut.

The movie’s production budget is believed to be around Rmb200 million ($31 million), even though Fan reportedly worked for free (out of patriotic duty).

The PLA was particularly hands-on in the production process. The army opened some of its restricted bases for filming and sent its pilots to fly the most advanced Chinese jets like the J-20 (a stealth twinjet fifth-generation fighter); the Y-20 (a large military transport aircraft); the J-10C (a lightweight multi-role fighter); and the J-11B (a single-seat twin-engine jet fighter). Previously such aircraft were only displayed at military parades.

To drum up interest for the film, Fan has been posting images of the different jets on her personal weibo. The photos show the top-secret aircraft in high resolution. In the past, state-run broadcaster CCTV would feature them in lower resolution and in some cases also blur out some of their key parts to maintain secrecy.

“Fan Bingbing has just released the highest resolution photos of the J-20 – revealing top military secrets,” Taiwan’s United Daily News declared. (Taiwanese generals will no doubt be poring over the images.)

“In the past, CCTV would blur out certain parts of the fighter jets, but here the image is not only clear but even in high resolution. Even the rivets are clearly visible in the pictures. I’m in shock,” one netizen wrote in disbelief.

Another chastised: “The J-20 in high resolution! Are you sure you are not revealing any state secrets? To give away top military secrets just to promote a film doesn’t seem to be worth it.”

The Global Times came to Fan’s defence. “Even though the J-20 is the most advanced combat aircraft in the Chinese airforce, which should be highly confidential, its shape and appearance is no longer top-secret since what’s important [and not visible from the exterior] is the gear and equipment,” says the state-run newspaper. “And besides, the producer of the film is the Television and Art Centre of the PLAAF [People’s Liberation Army Air Force], so don’t you think that the people who leak the photos would know better?”

For military buffs, however, Fan’s latest weibo offering did reveal a few interesting details. According to IHS Janes, the defence publishing company, the J-20 fighter is now equipped with new turbofan engines that are designed to increase stealth, “a feature that is characteristic of the US Pratt & Whitney F135 turbofan engine that powers the Lockheed Martin F-35 Joint Strike Fighter”.

So perhaps the PLA leaked the photos to show off its equipment’s growing sophistication?

“The pictures don’t really say much, but it proves the rapid development in our technology. Indeed, Chinese researchers have been sleeping with their weapons to prepare to fight at any time. Step-by-step we have caught up with Russia and might even overtake the US in the future. These images will no doubt make the West – especially the US – worry,” one commentator wrote on Sohu, a portal.

Sky Hunter arrives at a time when nationalistic sentiment is stronger than ever. Just last month, another action film Wolf Warrior 2 – again with a strong patriotic theme – became the biggest winner (ever) at the Chinese box office by touting the prowess and hardware of the PLA. Scenes included missiles launched from Chinese warships that destroyed terrorists without hurting nearby civilians (for more about the movie see WiC376).

While Sky Hunter has focused on air power, another blockbuster will showcase China’s military power at sea. Directed by Hong Kong filmmaker Dante Lam, Red Sea Operation will hit the big screen later this year.

Shot in Morocco, the film follows the evacuation of Chinese nationals during the 2015 Yemeni civil war by the Chinese navy (it’s the follow-up to Operation Mekong, which grossed $172 million in 2016). The film is likely to be screened to delegates at the 19th Party Congress which convenes on October 18.

That’s quite a statement – a bit like both branches of Congress in Washington shelving their debates, and sitting down to watch Top Gun.

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