Much more diplomatic

National Day cinema winner is another drama about China’s reach overseas


Friends, not foes: the cast of Home Coming takes a different path in projecting Chinese power

Wolf Warriors 2, the second highest-grossing movie in Chinese cinema history, celebrates how special forces troops help their Chinese compatriots escape a fictional African country caught up in a civil war.

Released in 2017, the film closes with an image of a Chinese passport and a short message: “When you encounter danger on foreign soil, do not give up. Please remember, at your back stands a strong motherland.”

One side effect of the stirring commitment is that Chinese tourists have been overplaying the patriotism card when they get into bother overseas. But the term ‘wolf warrior diplomacy’ has also circulated in the West to describe the more confrontational style adopted by many Chinese diplomats in response to perceived criticism of their country.

Home Coming, the standout movie over this week’s National Day holidays, goes back to a similar theme of an evacuation mission of Chinese nationals stranded overseas. But moviegoers anticipating an action-packed, flag-waving romp in Wolf Warrior style will be disappointed, however, as the movie sets out to portray a more nuanced expression of Chinese diplomacy overseas.

Home Coming tells the story of two diplomats ordered by the foreign ministry to bring home more than a hundred Chinese nationals after war breaks out in the Numea Republic in North Africa. Numea is a fictional place, the news portal China.org.cn explains, but the story is inspired by events in Libya in 2011, when the embassy got more than 30,000 Chinese out of danger over 12 days.

Home Coming is different to some of its predecessors in deciding against a glorification of the heroics of the Chinese military. Local film critics have pointed out that it focuses more on the human frailties of the Chinese diplomats when their lives are most at risk. For instance, when one of the young officials is forced to play Russian roulette by rebel soldiers, he’s so scared that he drops the pistol.

“Some moviegoers may have entered theatres expecting a Warrior Wolf-like movie, but are offered the cruelty of war and the most difficult part of diplomatic and consulate work in contrast to the traditional impression that diplomats are ‘clean and decent’. However, the two main characters’ deep love for their country and their people, their strong sense of responsibility and the greater group of Chinese diplomats they represent, touched many viewers,” the Global Times claimed.

“The characters in the film are realistic and vivid, allowing us to see the other side of the heroes as ordinary people,” agreed Zong Ning, a diplomat who is said to be the prototype of the main character, in comments to the South China Morning Post. “As a former diplomat who worked in the foreign ministry for 18 years, I hope this film brings more attention to the diplomats working on the front line. Each of them has their own story.”

Home Coming has emerged as the clear winner of the Golden Week holiday. As of Wednesday, it had grossed nearly Rmb800 million and accounted for nearly 70% of the country’s cinema ticket take during the National Day weekend.

So-called ‘main melody films’, or propaganda-infused work that pays tribute to the Chinese nation, the People’s Liberation Army and the ruling Chinese Communist Party, have topped the box office in National Day sales for the last three years. The Battle at Lake Changjin, the tale of a bloody battle during the Korean War, became the highest grossing Chinese movie of all time when it took nearly Rmb5.9 billion last year, with Rmb3 billion of sales over the National Day holidays.

The cinema industry this year has been affected by the Covid-19 pandemic as the government has stuck to its stringent “zero Covid” policy to contain the spread of the virus. As we reported last week, the prospects of a bumper period for ticket sales took another hit with the unexpected delay of Born to Fly, a Top-Gun-like tale that was expected to be the main favourite with audiences.

Yet Sina Entertainment reckons the performance of Home Coming as an unusual type of ‘main melody movie’ has been respectable. Its relative success also saw commentators asking whether the film was part of a broader strategy in which Beijing is hoping to dial down the more aggressive approach taken by some of its diplomatic representatives.

In fairness, ‘wolf warrior diplomacy’ as a term has been popularised by diplomats and media outlets in other counties, typically in the West. In their dealings with developing countries, for instance, Chinese officials say they rarely take on the more assertive style exemplified by outspoken foreign ministry spokesmen such as Zhao Lijian (who now has 1.8 million followers on Twitter).

According to The Diplomat magazine, the more confrontational approach from Chinese diplomatic and consular officials has often backfired, undercutting China’s attempts to project a more measured global image.

More recently, efforts have been made to replace the potential for tension and disagreement with more positive interactions. Some of the most senior Chinese diplomats such as Foreign Minister Wang Yi are also expected to be replaced after the 20th National Congress this month as Beijing leans more towards Chinese President Xi Jinping’s claimed desire to “create a lovable image of China”, The Diplomat suggests.

To this end, Home Coming might be signposting more of the shift in mood in its post-credits scene in which Wu Jing, the lead actor in Wolf Warrior 2, makes a cameo appearance to chat with Home Coming’s co-star Wang Junkai.

“We [the Chinese diplomats] didn’t use the guns but we got the job done,” Wang says. Wu responds with a rather embarrassed laugh…

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