Every so often, we review Asian films to give you a perspective on what’s happening behind China’s Great Wall, beyond the box office reports. While “Wolf Warrior II” gained attention for its astonishing $800 million domestic gross, “Operation Red Sea” may appear unimpressive with its $550 million—until you consider that there were three similar Chinese blockbusters last year. This rapid market expansion highlights the difference in cinematic taste between China and the West, exemplified by quirky comedies and last year’s mega-expensive “Monster Hunt 2.”
At first glance, “Operation Red Sea,” directed by Hong Kong’s Dante Lam, seems no different from the military action spectacles Hollywood produces, à la Michael Bay or Peter Berg. Created as a tribute to the Chinese People’s Army, the film’s leading roles are filled by capable, solid actors rather than starlets. The action kicks off with a gripping first scene that captures the attention of fans of “Counterstrike” and “Call of Duty.”
The film is jam-packed with action scenes that are difficult to criticize. Lam employs a handheld camera and a frenetic style, akin to Paul Greengrass’s approach to action cinema. Despite its action-packed thrills, the film falls flat in terms of plot and character development, serving more as a montage of action set pieces than as a cohesive narrative. Loosely inspired by the rescue of hostages during the Yemeni civil war, the plot merely functions as a thin pretext to transition between action scenes, much like in a computer game.
While the product placement is no more distracting than in American war films, the film’s treatment of its heroes leaves something to be desired. The characters are so interchangeable and dehumanized that it negatively impacts the film’s dramatic arc. This is particularly evident when the film’s screenplay avoids mocking approaching American cruisers in Chinese waters during the finale.
This subtle moment speaks volumes, signaling China’s readiness to flex its cinematic muscle alongside its military prowess. China aims to export its films, just as it negotiates for American films to be distributed on its soil. The cultural war is on, and “Operation Red Sea” serves as a salvo from the Chinese film industry.
Interestingly, China submitted this film to the Oscars’ foreign language category on behalf of Hong Kong—where, incidentally, the film flopped. This decision reveals a lot, particularly given the current climate where any overt criticism might invite military intervention.
Overall, “Operation Red Sea” is an action-packed film whose ambition ultimately works against it. While the action scenes are well-executed, the lack of a compelling plot and character depth leaves it wanting. Yet it’s hard to ignore the film’s ideological implications, especially as China continues to establish itself in the global cinema landscape.
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