The United States is an empire in decline, and the dynamics of its film industry reflects this.
Americans today don’t really like war movies — or at least, modern war movies. They rarely make any waves at the box office, and are easily beat out by fantasy and science-fiction franchises. This cinematic wallowing in the supernatural is fitting, given the steady descent of American politics and culture into madness over the past few decades. The real world — particularly the real world of US imperial misadventures — is too much of a bummer to be the subject matter for escapism, and too obviously deranged to be used as material for nationalist cheer-leading. Thus, militarist chest-thumping restricts itself to fantasy settings, like Michael Bay’s Transformers franchise. It is much easier to enjoy masturbation over billion-dollar military hardware and invincible commandos when they are fighting evil space robots in a cosmic battle over magical artifacts, rather than blowing up Iraqi villages to bump up the returns on Dick Cheney’s investment portfolio. When Hollywood does attempt to portray modern warfare, it almost always centers on hand-wringing about the trauma of war and the sacrifices of veterans, while steering clear of examining the deeper problems of American imperialism.
The new wave of war cinema in China and India, on the other hand, dispenses with all of this. They are full-bore and unironically “China/India fuck yeah”, in a manner that can only be satirical in the US. These films are completely confident, self-righteously violent, unapologetically nationalist, frequently unsettling, and thoroughly entertaining. And they have been soaking up the box offices in a way that American war movies have never done.
Spoilers ahead for Wolf Warrior II and Uri: The Surgical Strike
In 2017, Wolf Warrior II, directed by and starring Wu Jing, was released in China. It quickly smashed all sorts of box office records; as of today, it is the highest grossing film in Chinese history. The film follows the story of a charismatic and fearsome ex-special forces operative, Leng Feng. While drowning his sorrows in some undisclosed sub-Saharan African nation, Feng suddenly gets caught in the middle of a civil war, and finds himself as the one man who can save trapped Chinese doctors and factory workers from murderous rebel forces and the sociopathic band of white mercenaries leading them.
It’s all fascinating inversion of what one would expect to see in a Hollywood film about US military operations in some foreign brown land; like a Chinese mash-up of Rambo and Black Hawk Down. China essentially replaces the US as the benevolent imperial guarantor of security and economic investments; it is a running theme throughout the film that Africans — both the besieged government and the insurgent rebels — respect and appreciate China and its military and economic power. There are no good Americans in the movie, except for Feng’s love interest, Dr. Rachel Smith, who is half-Chinese and speaks flawless Mandarin; and the US military is completely absent. The latter is a conscious choice by the filmmakers; in a humorous scene shortly after Feng rescues Smith from the clutches of rebel forces, she tries to convince Feng to go to the American consulate for help, to no avail. Feng’s smug response: “All the foreign navy ships were leaving as I arrived. I watched them sail away from the port. Among all the countless foreign masts, I think I saw a star spangled banner…”
What isn’t inverted or reversed from Hollywood tropes, however, is the portrayal of Third World locals. At best, the Africans in Wolf Warrior II are hapless and meek, in need of being saved from their chaotic, poor, and lawless society; at worst, they are psychotic and stupid killers who require leadership from white foreigners. Hilariously, the movie never bothers to clarify any actual country, real or fictional, for the setting, and continually refers to the location as “Africa”. Africans who are secondary characters or extras are largely devoid of any agency or initiative; they serve as either cannon fodder to get gratuitously massacred by the bad guys, or the means by which the main characters demonstrate how good they are, and how good Africans think they are. Indeed, the film’s insistence on showing how progressive and not-racist the heroes are strongly echoes the liberal paternalism of Hollywood, albeit with some fascinating undertones of class analysis. Around the middle of the film, there is a scene where the Chinese bosses of a Chinese factory are figuring out how to get to the coast, where the Chinese navy is waiting. The manager, a coward and a racist, is insistent on only saving Chinese people, and has the foremen separate the Chinese and Africans. The African workers, as well as a significant number of Chinese workers, are dismayed and upset, and the little African girl accompanying Feng and Smit looks up at them and tearfully asks “whyyy?”. Feng finally steps in, declaring that everybody will leave together. All the workers cheer and clap, and the racist manager is cowed.
At the film’s climax, this melodramatic racial commentary merges with a not-so-veiled criticism of US imperialism and its global racial order. Feng is engaged in fierce hand-to-hand combat with the head mercenary, an American. For a moment, it appears that the mercenary has the upper hand, and he takes the opportunity to taunt Feng, telling him that “people like you will always be inferior to people like me — get used to it! Get fucking used to it!” In response, Feng breaks free, grabs his knife, and stabs the mercenary about twenty times in the face. He then finally snaps back: “That’s fucking history”.
Wolf Warrior II is a mostly cheerful film, notwithstanding the over-the-top violence. The ultimate message, delivered with a slight wink, is that China, unlike the contemporary United States, will use its strength for everybody’s benefit, to bring political stability and economic growth.
This liberal humanitarianism is totally absent in Uri: The Surgical Strike. Released in 2018 in India to a roaring box office success, Uri bears a far closer resemblance to American “War on Terror” movies, with their dark and grim realist aesthetic; less Rambo, and more Zero Dark Thirty or American Sniper. And definitely no song-and-dance numbers. Uri is based on the true story of a 2016 militant attack on an Indian army base in Kashmir — a restive, disputed province in the far north, bordering Pakistan and China — and the retaliatory special forces strikes on the militants’ camps in Pakistan, lead by the main (fictional) character of Major Vihaan Singh Shergill, whose brother-in-law is killed in Uri attack. Aside from some brief digressions, the plot follows a simple linear arc: cowardly terrorists attack and kill some brave Indian troops, the Indian military figures out who is responsible and where they are based, and other brave Indian troops go and kill them.
Such a film must inevitably be soaked with nationalism. But unlike Wolf Warrior, this nationalism does not cast itself as being about anything other than self-valorization. This is perhaps due to the different geopolitical context; unlike Wolf Warrior, which is a fictional “adventure in a far away land” tale, Uri casts itself as a true story about the enemies at the gate — Pakistan and the assortment of militant groups and terrorist cells it supports — and the unrestrained violence needed to repel them and secure the motherland. This message is bluntly stated during a scene after the Uri attack, where top Indian political and military officials are discussing how to respond. The National Security Advisor gives a short sermon to the prime minister to cap off the scene: “In the history of India, we have never attacked any country first. And Pakistan has been taking advantage of our nature from the beginning. 1947, ’65, ’71, ’99. In fact, sir, our tolerance is being mistaken as our weakness. This is our chance to instill fear into their hearts…this is a New India.”
This uncompromising sentiment leads to some truly remarkable action sequences. Multiple combat scenes involve the heroes gunning down seemingly unarmed and fleeing militants during ambushes. After one shoot-out, an injured jihadist is tossed into a pile of his dead brethren and set on fire. And of course, in proper homage to basically any and all US action films, there is the classic “enhanced interrogation” scene, where two frightened peasants are heroically threatened, beaten, and tortured until they divulge crucial information about the terrorists’ hideouts.
By the time the climax rolls around, one might be wondering exactly why the film is so indignant about the Uri attack, given that the retaliatory strike is essentially doing the same thing as the militants: sneaking into a camp of combatants and killing as many people as possible. But in fact, Uri is fully cognizant of this mirroring, and instead of coming up with some half-assed moral high-ground, it embraces the equivalence; the final battle is a straightforward celebration of vengeance. Vihaan, after a bout of hand-to-hand combat with the chief terrorist, holds a knife to his chest, and tells him: “You barged into my home and killed my brothers. Today I barged into your home and I’m killing your brothers. We are the Indian Army.” Vihaan then slowly plunges the knife into the terrorist’s chest while screaming “INDIAN ARMY!”, after which a triumphant orchestral score crescendos, in case the audience was uncertain about how to feel about all this.
It is not surprising that Wolf Warrior II and Uri: The Surgical Strike both made such a killing at the box offices. Beyond the fact that they are both highly entertaining and technically proficient films, they capture the growing pride of two nations with ancient heritages that are reclaiming their positions on the global stage, after decades of messy-to-disastrous postcolonial rule, which followed at least a century of humiliating foreign occupation and brutal imperial exploitation. And there is also something here for us Asian Americans as well; it is certain that Feng is channeling many of our desires when he violently and uncompromisingly asserts that the era of white supremacist imperialism is “fucking history”.
All of this has drawn much pearl-clutching indignation from an embarrassing number of Western critics, specifically about Wolf Warrior, who are sputtering with rage that the Chinese have created not just a nationalist war movie, but one that is on par with Hollywood in terms of competence and cultural and financial reach. Of course, these pundits have none of the same open scorn for American propaganda films like Zero Dark Thirty or American Sniper, and have nothing to say about the real-life devastation that has been wrought by US imperialism across the Middle East and beyond in the past few decades.
But at the same time, the fact that the pot is calling the kettle black should not fool us into believing that the kettle is not, in fact, black. The rising powers in Asia are quite happy with adopting the principles of Western nation-states when it comes to creating and enforcing their own territorial, political, and cultural borders, and projecting power beyond these borders. Wolf Warrior and real-life Chinese foreign policy does not envision a world where imperialism is overthrown, so much as re-centered, with China supplanting the US as the keystone power of global capitalism, as the latter retreats from its historically central role as the upholder of free trade and capital flows. The film’s set-pieces — Chinese-owned ports, medical camps, factories — represent the sprawling economic footprint of China in Africa today. But imperial investments are never benign; Chinese capital flows into Africa look strikingly like the neocolonial practices of the West in the 1970s and beyond, when massive predatory lending allowed Western financial institutions to seize control of large swathes of the Third World, all the while claiming that this was the only method of effective and efficient development.
Even more disconcerting is the symbolism of Uri, whose message is more or less that India can carry out counter-insurgency campaigns, secure its borderlands, and defeat its enemies just as effectively as the US — notwithstanding the important point that US national security policy is more about violent spectacle than successful strategy. The grim reality is that the modern Indian state has had to deal with malcontents of all shapes and sizes challenging its rule: not just the Pakistani and Kashmiri militants featured in Uri, but also Sikh separatists, Naga nationalists, tribal rebels, and communist guerrillas. These rebellions have been violently squashed with any and all means necessary — massacres, arbitrary detentions, forced displacement, torture, rape — in a manner mirroring how the US and its local allies have enforced order across Latin America and the Middle East. The “New India” of Modi has vigorously carried on this tradition, albeit with a more militant, Hindu-nationalist flavor. Kashmir today is under a partial communications blackout and a massive troop surge, part of sweeping pacification measures passed in the summer of 2019 after the Indian state revoked Kashmir’s historical autonomy, abolished its constitution, and carried out mass arrests of local politicians and social leaders. This campaign also reveals the synchronicity between Indian and Chinese national security strategy, despite their rivalries; Xinjiang, which is geographically adjacent to Kashmir and separated by the Himalayas, is also seeing its people being violently assimilated. And of course, a similarly fierce clash between dominant and upstart nationalisms has been playing out in Hong Kong.
None of this means that we should kowtow to hypocritical American disdain, especially insofar as this disdain is part of a larger project of normalizing Sinophobia and heating up a new Cold War with China (India thus far has remained comfortably aligned with the US bloc, and has therefore largely escaped any such racialized tensions). On the contrary, there is an undeniable schadenfreude in watching the US empire get tripped up and out-competed by resurgent Asian powers, while its desperate foreign policy pundits cry out in a scandalized hysteria. But the policies of China and India toward those who may interrupt or blemish their return to glory are far too similar to the policies of the US in its own efforts to make itself great again; anybody unnerved by Trump and the hooting scoundrels who surround him must recognize the parallels and similarities in Xi and Modi. As such, while we can and should enjoy these well-made and entertaining films, we should do so from a somewhat reflective and detached standpoint, able to both celebrate the good (representation of strong Asian characters, undermining white supremacy) while criticizing the bad (reproduction of imperialist politics and racial/national hierarchies, celebration of traditionalist masculinity).
But the real task for the Asian American cinephile is to search for and elevate Asian films that critique great-power ultra-nationalism, and imagine a world beyond it. One such film is The Yellow Sea, a Korean thriller released in 2010, which tells the grim story of a stateless man from North Korea navigating the underworld of the Chinese-Korean borderlands, searching for his missing wife and an escape from crushing debt. Another is A Land Imagined, a Singaporean neo-noir released in 2018, which gives a surreal snapshot of the melancholia of Chinese and Bangladeshi indentured migrant workers who labor away at the bottom of Singapore’s social hierarchy. Both of these films undermine the nationalist mythos advanced by Wolf Warrior and Uri, turning the lens away from grand, one-dimensional stories of a powerful country’s heroes defeating their irredeemable enemies, and toward the dark underbelly between and beyond borders, where so many toil away for an uncertain future, their precarious lives jostled and churned according to the dictates of international capital and state security policies. The enemies here are not the people of a rival country, but instead the very framework of nation-states as they are organized and governed under global capitalism, which regulate and restrict the movement of people even as the wealth and resources they depend on flow freely across borders.
Both of these films are potentially much more compelling to Asian Americans, despite not being runaway cultural sensations like Wolf Warrior and Uri. The unstable borderlands of Asia is a much more compelling analogy to our own general state of non-belonging, of being neither fully Asian nor fully American, and with ultimately little to gain from giving our loyalties to this or that empire. The ultimate lesson here is the need to chart a course that is independent of any nationalist or imperial project, and uphold principles that are not limited to a single imagined community that is constricted by rigid boundaries and self-declared supremacy: an Asian America without borders.
But until then, bust out the popcorn and nachos and enjoy the schlock!