At the end of Jim Jaramusch’s 2019 zombie movie, The Dead Don’t Die, as the two lead characters sit in a car surrounded by zombies, awaiting their inevitable demise, Bill Murray’s character has the following conversation with Adam Driver’s. “May I ask you a question?” Murray says. “Sure. Ask away,” Driver replies. “You have been saying that this is all gonna end badly, from the very beginning, over and over. So, what made you so f—— sure of that? How did you know everything in advance?” Driver thinks about it. “Do you really want to know?” he says. “Yes! I want to know. I really want to know!” Murray responds. “Okay. I know because I’ve read the script.”
The joke, that the only way the film’s contrivances make any sense is to acknowledge that they are generated by an external force, could be applied to almost any Hollywood movie. But on a five-year anniversary rewatch of China’s second-highest grossing movie in history, Wolf Warrior 2, it’s an irresistible reference point. Joined only by The Battle at Lake Changjin as a Chinese movie in the world’s all time top 100 biggest box-office takes, at the time of its 2017 release, the Wolf Warrior sequel made headlines as the first Chinese movie to compete with Hollywood box-office numbers, and was touted as “the game-changer in the Chinese film industry’s inexorable path towards becoming the largest film market in the world.” However, the only way its incoherent mix of plot points and bouts of labored exposition can be reasonably justified is that they are guided by an external attempt to channel Chinese nationalism.
As Benedict Anderson outlined, Chinese nationalism, unusually, combines two distinct variants, owing partly to China’s historical position as an empire that was itself plundered by other imperial powers . On the one hand, “The popular nationalism of the world-wide anti-imperialist movement” channels a reaction from below against imperial attempts to penetrate China. On the other, “the official nationalism of the late 19th century … which emanated from the state, not the people, and thought in terms of territorial control, not popular liberation,” channels Chinese elites’ own efforts to “stretch the short, tight skin of the nation over the vast body of [its own] empire” and beyond. Transferred into script form, the tension between these two variants — one reacting against other people’s empires, the other reinforcing its own — turns into a disjointed story built around a civil war breaking out in an unnamed African country and a contorted non-intervention intervention from China. The audience watches internal coherence sacrificed in order to satisfy both sides of an external divide.
The contortions play out as follows: A Chinese soldier temporarily becomes not officially a Chinese soldier, though he works in direct communication with the Chinese military at all times, and in a post-credit sequence is reinstated. This stretch allows him to go into a country and back the government side in a civil war using extreme, victory-inducing violence against the rebels, and in doing so simultaneously represent and not represent a heroic Chinese intervention. In contrast to the American in the story, who works as a mercenary for the rebel group before assassinating its leader and installing a puppet replacement, the unofficial Chinese soldier whips out the Chinese flag only after the go ahead for intervention has been given by the unnamed African government, and he defers to the U.N.’s legitimacy by pausing, absurdly, mid-battle, to record evidence of a sadistic rebel massacre of civilians.
This one foot in, one foot out approach to intervention is a burden dramatically — creating impossible to believe moments in most places and requiring constant careful explanations elsewhere that rob it of the swaggering smoothness of movies it seeks to copy, like James Bond or Rambo. But it’s clear that the awkwardness is a consequence of a difficult balancing act. Official nationalism from above offers the fantasy of being a uniquely benign force for good, operating as world police (with implied economic benefits). Popular nationalism from below offers the deference to U.N. resolutions and other countries’ borders. Much more conveniently, James Bond and his borderless “license to kill” only has to channel the first of these, because British nationalism only carries the first variant, with Britain itself only acting as an empire, not having been colonized.
And of course the same tension plays out for China in the real world too. Benedict Anderson, for instance, pointed out “the bizarre spectacle of people like Sun Yat-sen (孫逸仙), a genuine popular nationalist, also making absurd claims to territories in various parts of Southeast and Central Asia, based on real or fanciful territorial conquests of dynastic rulers, many of them non-Chinese, against whom his popular nationalism was supposed to fight.” More recently, though, we can contrast official Chinese complaints against NATO expansion with the militarization of atolls in the South China Sea, and the building of the first Chinese military base on foreign soil in Djibouti in 2017, the year of Wolf Warrior 2’s release.
Chinese nationalism occupies two conflicting positions, which is why Wolf Warrior 2 is the kind of story that could do with Bill Murray walking in to ask for clarification on why the whole thing feels so contrived.
Image: celinahoran, Wikimedia