Main Melody Recomposed: Deconstructing the Wolf Warrior Phenomenon

Abstract: This article investigates how the concept of main melody films has changed and how main melody is composed, subverted, and received, specifically in Wolf Warrior II, in the creation of national pride and nationalist sentiments. Main melody film is a unique category in the Chinese film industry, referring to films that embody official ideologies promoted by the state. While previous scholars have studied the production of main melody films, the responses of the recipients of the main melody messages often take little space in scholarly discussions. This article examines the content of Wolf Warrior II, existing interviews with Wu Jing (the producer, director, screenwriter, and lead actor of this film), and online movie reviews on Douban, a prominent Chinese movie review website. It analyzes the political messages encoded in this film and how they are interpreted by different audiences based on qualitative analyses of both the film content and its reviews. This article argues that while privately produced main melody films do contain state-sponsored nationalist messages, they also offer some space for directors and audiences to insert more nuanced ideas and interpretations that do not uphold state ideologies. This article helps the public and scholars build a critical lens in examining Chinese main melody films and recognizing the complexities behind the production and consumption of these cultural products.

Introduction

“Anyone who offends our China will be killed no matter how far the target is.”[1] The 2017 Chinese blockbuster Wolf Warrior II frequently uses this nationalist slogan in its posters and promotional events. Wu Jing, the producer, director, and lead actor of Wolf Warrior II, released it on July 27, 2017, to pay tribute to the ninetieth anniversary of the founding of the People’s Liberation Army.[2] Having earned nearly $900 million during its theatrical run, Wolf Warrior II achieved an unparalleled commercial success: it occupies the highest place in Chinese box office history as of this writing, with over ninety-nine percent of its revenue generated in the Chinese domestic film market.[3] Wolf Warrior II became a representative success story of Chinese main melody films in the eyes of both Chinese state media and foreign media. The phrase "Wolf Warrior II phenomenon" was coined to describe its level of success.[4]

Main melody refers to state-sponsored and state-sanctioned ideas of national spirit and national pride, and main melody films are films that embody these ideas. While the exact definition of “state-sponsored and state-sanctioned ideas” is fluid, as it has to respond to changes in China’s state ideologies, the general use of main melody is to elicit people’s identification with the state and their national identity. Wolf Warrior II was labeled a main melody film for its blatant use of nationalist elements and lines to stimulate people’s pride in being Chinese. It tells a story in which Leng Feng, a former Chinese special forces operative, rescues both Chinese and African people from the hands of evil Euro-American mercenaries in an unnamed African country. The movie begins with Leng arriving in Africa and accidentally getting involved in a military coup that threatens the livelihood of Chinese citizens and his African acquaintances. As the Chinese army is blocked from entering African territory without UN permission, Leng’s sense of responsibility as a Chinese veteran and a Chinese citizen prompts him to lead the local rescue effort. He successfully protects both Chinese and African citizens in this unnamed African country by killing Big Daddy, the lead antagonist, and sends people to secured locations where the Chinese army is stationed. At the end of the film, a Chinese passport is projected on the screen and a line is imprinted on the passport, declaring: “Chinese citizens: When you encounter danger abroad, do not give up! Remember, wherever you go, your country is always behind you.”[5]

Wolf Warrior II was praised by several Chinese state media and foreign media as an iconic example of main melody films. Many viewed its success as a microcosm of China’s developing main melody film market. Immediately after its debut, People’s Daily applauded Wolf Warrior II for its successful creation of a Chinese superhero to promote main melody and to win the hearts and minds of the audience.[6]Guangming Daily published a review titled “Wolf Warrior II Applauded among the Audience and in the Market: This Is What a Main Melody Film Should Look Like.”[7] As its market performance continued to excel, not only the Chinese domestic media, but also foreign media and scholars started to discuss the Wolf Warrior II phenomenon.[8] BBC’s Beijing Bureau published an article on Wolf Warrior II’s box office success and viewed it as a reflection and a result of the increasing nationalist sentiment among Chinese citizens.[9] These news outlets’ articles illustrate the significance of the Wolf Warrior II phenomenon. However, a close examination of the production and reception of main melodic elements in Wolf Warrior II reveals the complexities behind the main melodic nature of this film and its commercial success.

This article departs from the historical development of Chinese main melody films and looks inside the success story of Wolf Warrior II to evaluate the intricacies of the contemporary main melodic film market. It investigates how the concept of main melody films has changed and how main melody is composed, subverted, and received, specifically in Wolf Warrior II. Following the footsteps of previous film studies, this article conducts visual and textual analysis on the content of Wolf Warrior II to investigate the formulation of main melody in the storytelling process. It then collects online reviews from Douban, a prominent Chinese movie rating website, to assess common moviegoers’ reactions to the political messages encoded in the film content. The article argues that while main melodic blockbusters like Wolf Warrior II generally embody state-sanctioned political ideologies, their production is not solely controlled by the state. Their box office success does not necessarily translate to increasing nationalist sentiments and people’s complete identification with the main melodic ideologies. Main melodic blockbusters actually create a public space for movie producers/directors and Chinese domestic audiences to insert their own interpretations, re-negotiate their identities, and even potentially subvert official doctrines.

From Main Melody Films to Main Melodic Blockbusters

Historical development of main melody films

Chinese cinema has been viewed by the state as an opportunity to win people’s hearts and minds and promote a shared sense of national pride since the founding of the People’s Republic of China. Benedict Anderson argues in Imagined Communities that consciousness of national identity and the ideology of nationalism are culturally constructed concepts that do not naturally occur as the state emerges.[10] Building on this theory, Alan Williams asserts that national cinema creates an ideal place for people to develop this consciousness of being part of a nation, and functions as “a weapon of state-supported cultural nationalism to promote national values in the face of the other.”[11] These western theories correspond to the Chinese Communist Party’s early intention to introduce films to provide ideological guidance to the public.

The Chinese government has invested in movie productions to explain domestic government policies to the public since 1949. Films produced in the early socialist years focus mainly on the importance of class struggle. The White-Haired Girl (1950) and The Earth (1954), made in the early socialist era, and Age of Red (1974), made during the Cultural Revolution, all depict the contrasts of Chinese society under feudal rule and under Communist rule. Post-socialist films also focus on ideological battles. Several films were made to depict the downfall of the Gang of Four and the then-ongoing anti-corruption campaign in China.[12] While these state-produced films all embodied political ideologies promoted by the state, the official concept of main melody films did not emerge until the late 1980s.

China experienced a series of cultural, political, and social instabilities in the 1980s. As the state adopted Reform and Opening Up policies in 1978 that opened up its domestic market to international trade and foreign capital, people were influenced and mobilized more by western liberal ideologies.[13] While government policies focused mostly on economic reform and intentionally avoided political reform, some groups, especially students and intellectuals, demanded that the state open up the political arena and adopt a democratic rule. In order to limit the influence of liberalism in China and reduce the political division between the state and the public, the Chinese government started to invest more in the production of nationalist cultural products to disseminate state-sanctioned political ideologies and help reconstruct a unified state-approved national identity.

The concept of main melody films (Zhuxuanlv Dianying) was officially proposed in 1987 by the vice-minister of the MRFT, Ding Qiao, and the vice-director of the Shanghai Film Studio, Shi Fangyu.[14] It refers to movies that “invigorate national spirit and national pride,” according to the former Ministry of Radio, Film, and Television (MRFT).[15] “The [Film] Bureau ordered the studios to produce a small flood of films on contemporary and historical topics that praised the army, the party, and the police, while condemning the polluted ways of foreign cultures.”[16] The state put this concept into large-scale practice following the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests, which created political and social instability and a loss of faith in the Chinese government among the public.[17] To ensure that the public received the state messages, the government “issu[ed] official documents requiring that all government-owned institutions, enterprises, work units, schools, and universities to purchase tickets for their members.”[18] To this day, the state still sponsors a great number of movies each year to promote state-approved political ideologies in national cinema and boost the public’s identification with the government.[19]

The Emergence of Main Melodic Blockbusters

Over the two decades since the government first raised the idea of main melody in 1987, the government had invested in several state-sponsored studios to produce movies that embodied official nationalism and promoted state-sponsored ideologies.[20] Despite heavy state investment, these films gradually lost their dominance in the film market as the Chinese audience obtained more access to Western films, especially Hollywood productions. In comparison to films produced in the Hollywood model, which generally rely heavily on visual effects and intense storytelling, domestically produced main melody films seem to be monotonous and tedious cultural products that lack innovation and excitement.[21] The audience lost interest as they were tired of watching main melody films filled with pretentious representations of nationalism and nationalist slogans, and preferred foreign productions when they enjoyed the liberty to decide their consumption choices in the film market.

However, the emergence of main melodic blockbusters in the late 2000s broke the quandary faced by old-style main melody films. They gradually took over the old films’ position to become the new representatives of this genre in both the film market and the state propaganda scheme. Films such as Assembly (2007), The Founding of a Republic (2009), and The Message (2009) are all representatives of early main melodic blockbusters that successfully won the audience back from Western productions.[22] These commercial films not only adopted new ways of filming, but also revolutionized the use of main melody in Chinese movies. Their purpose was no longer to educate the audience on the main melody, but to attract audiences by telling intriguing stories with main melody elements. Following this new trend that emphasizes commercialization over the politicization of films, more privately produced main melodic blockbusters appeared, including Operation Mekong (2015), Wolf Warrior II (2017), Operation Red Sea (2018), and The Wandering Earth (2019). These films all reached the top of Chinese box office records within days of release and generated heated discussion among the public.

Main melodic blockbusters, especially those produced by private companies, gained market popularity for various reasons. The essential reason was that the producers and directors were willing to embrace market directions and change their production strategies to appeal to the public. The Founding of a Republic, for example, achieved unexpectedly high revenue as the director invited hundreds of popular stars to take part in it.[23] The fame of these popular stars brought a huge number of young fans into the cinema to watch main melody films. Fans were often proud of their idols’ involvement in such films, as they interpreted it to be the state’s unofficial recognition of the popularity and legitimacy of their idols.[24] Film directors also innovated their production techniques and adopted different elements from Hollywood to make their films more aesthetically and visually pleasing to common people. The Message, for example, is marketed for its filming techniques and its nature as an espionage thriller. “If The Founding of a Republic represents the commercialization of main melody film, The Message gives a great example of how to incorporate the main melody in commercial films,” according to Qunshu Gao, a mainland film director.[25] These movies not only became blockbusters, but also received extensive praise and domestic and international awards for their high-standard production. The commercialization of main melody films gained great success as they appealed more to the audience’s taste instead of the state’s taste. Main melody was no longer at the core of these films. In extreme cases, some main melodic blockbusters even de-emphasized the political aspect and chose to focus on the production techniques and storytelling during the promotion process.

The themes of main melodic blockbusters also diversified and attracted a wider range of audiences to the cinema. While previously most main melody films had taken a historical perspective to depict historical events that happened during the Second Sino-Japanese War or the Korean War, main melodic blockbusters started to adapt their storylines from fictional stories and respond to the needs of an audience that is heavily influenced by global cultural exchanges.[27] They have also shifted their focus from a domestic perspective to a global one and projected a newly imagined China in relation to the world. Operation Red Sea was a production based on the 2015 evacuation of Chinese citizens from Yemen[28]; The Wandering Earth is a science fiction film that shows Chinese people taking the lead in a worldwide operation to save the earth from an expanding sun. While old main melody films attracted mostly people from the older generation who were nostalgic for the revolutionary years, new main melodic blockbusters attracted younger audiences to the cinema because of these changes that are taking place. All these films became blockbusters and redefined Chinese main melody films.

This article evaluates the use of main melody in new main melodic blockbusters, using Wolf Warrior II as a case study. Wolf Warrior II possesses most of the principal characteristics of this film category. Moving away from the revolutionary time, Wolf Warrior II is a fictional action movie based on the 2011 evacuation of Chinese citizens from Libya. The film focuses more on telling a good story to its audience than on educating them about official ideologies. While this film is just one of hundreds of films produced and screened very year in Chinese cinema, its main melodic characteristics and box office success make it a salient example to reflect on the market ecosystem.


Composing Main Melody in Wolf Warrior II

The production side of Chinese main melody films has been at the center of scholarly analysis and public discussion, as it is understood as a venue to access official propaganda. Scholars such as Baiqing Zhang, LeiLei Jia, and Ying Zhang have tried to trace the emergence of Chinese main melody films and their development over the past decades to understand the changes that have happened in the funding and filming processes.[29] Others like William Callahan and Hongmei Yu investigate the change of the main melody over time, the use of historical events, and how these factors correspond to China’s domestic situation and international position.[30] Several scholars also conduct case studies to examine the filming techniques and aesthetic tastes of generations of Chinese directors. This section adopts the methodology used in these previous studies and conducts visual and textual analysis to examine the formulation of main melody in Wolf Warrior II.

Wolf Warrior II adopts past-versus-present and self-versus-other rhetoric to establish contrasts between China’s historical backwardness and contemporary advancement. The film presents China as a nation with great economic and military power. Instead of abusing this power, as some Western countries have done, China chooses to use it properly to help small nations develop and protect international peace. This depiction contributes to the stimulation of national pride among the domestic Chinese audiences and people’s identification with their national identity.

Past versus Present

There are several occasions where the movie makes reference to China’s so-called “Century of Humiliation” and compares it with China’s international position today.[31] One scene that stands out is when Big Daddy, the antagonistic European mercenary, states that “people like you will always be inferior to people like me, get used to it, get f**king used to it” (1:51:31). This is a clear reference to China’s history at the beginning of the twentieth century and its “humiliating” past, when the late imperial China was invaded by foreign forces, lost various battles, and ceded part of its territory to foreign countries. The sense of historical humiliation is strengthened as the lines in Chinese translate “people” as minzu (nationality), instead of “people” as ren (people in the literal sense), implying that the entire Chinese population is backward. Leng then responds to Big Daddy, “That’s f**king history,” after he stabs Big Daddy to death. As the film induces the collective memory of humiliation, it forces its audience to recall their collective memory and creates a shared narrative for its audience to identify with the character in the film. When Leng challenges Big Daddy and fights back, saying that the past experience no longer applies to the present, he reminds the audience that their sense of humiliation has passed. Instead, they should have a sense of national pride for overcoming the humiliating time.

At the same time, the movie spends a lot of effort talking about the greatness of contemporary China and implies how it is going to gain even greater power in the future. It stresses China’s military advancement and its central role in the world. Wolf Warrior II showcases China’s military power by using a wide variety of Chinese military equipment, such as domestically produced assault rifles, tanks, vessels, and missiles.[32] These products are used by both the Chinese and African military, indicating the competitiveness of Chinese military technology on the world stage. At the same time, Chinese political power is also emphasized throughout the film. In the Chinese hospital, when Big Daddy executes Chinese civilians, his accomplice, the rebel commander who starts the coup to win political power, questions Big Daddy: “You are killing the Chinese? It’s big trouble, why are you killing the Chinese?” (47:00). The rebel commander later states again, “I have told you so many f**king times that we cannot kill the Chinese” and explains that “China is a permanent member of the UN Security Council, and I need them on my side if I am to take political power” (1:11:57). The central role of China is illustrated specifically when the rebels mention that they need China’s recognition to be a legitimate political power in an African country. This scene uses the words of Africans to confirm the importance of China in the contemporary world. It demonstrates China’s hard and soft power and its ability not only to protect its own citizens, but also to influence global affairs and keep international peace.

Self versus Other

Wolf Warrior II adopts the self-versus-other rhetoric to help the audience relate to the experience of the Chinese citizens in the film and to reiterate the benefits and pride of being Chinese. In the last scene of the movie, Leng tries to take several truckloads of Chinese and African nationals through the war zone to the safe place where Chinese military personnel are stationed. When confronted by rebels carrying rifles, he takes out a Chinese national flag and waves it to indicate his nationality. Upon seeing the Chinese flag, even though Leng’s group is composed of both Chinese and African people, the rebels shout out “It’s the Chinese. Hold your fire.” At the same time, the African government army commander repeats, “It’s the Chinese” and stops firing (1:54:30). In the end, Leng’s group successfully arrives at the station because of their shared Chineseness. Several scenes show the rebels’ reluctance to hurt Chinese nationals; being Chinese acts as a magic bullet to safeguard the people. This emphasis on how the Chinese identity delivers peace creates a sense of pride in the audience, which is also Chinese.[33] As they realize the value of their Chinese identity and the power of this identity on foreign soil, they can easily resonate with the sense of national pride presented in the film.

The “other,” the out-group in this film, features both white evil mercenaries and Africans in precarious economic, social, and political situations. The biggest villain in Wolf Warrior II is the European mercenary group led by Big Daddy. The actions of these western mercenaries are depicted as inhumane, as they target innocent unarmed civilians and even doctors to extract the information they need. Throughout the movie, Big Daddy is indifferent to life. He forces people to kneel on the ground and executes them with an attitude similar to contemporary terrorists. For the audience, these Westerners are not humans, as they are divested of human emotions and basic moral consciousness. The plot creates a second other, an impotent African out-group. Both the government army and the rebel army rely on foreign political and military assistance to fight against each other. Innocent Africans rely on Leng because their local government has lost its power during the military coup; the rebel army relies on outside military forces because they lack the strong military power to defeat the government army. The contrast between a positive image of self and negative images of others leaves the audience with a strong impression that they should be proud of being Chinese and they should view China as a global power.

Discordant Cacophonies Alongside the Main Melody

“We are not living in a peaceful time, but we do live in a peaceful country.” Wu Jing, in an interview with The New Yorker, mentioned that this was the main message he wanted to tell people. He believed that everyone should “feel happy, focus less on the negative things, and cherish this moment.”[34]  Wu Jing repeatedly used this phrase when he was interviewed by both domestic and foreign media about the success of Wolf Warrior II and his intentions behind the production of the film. While the general storyline does reflect his patriotic attitude, the film also contains many discordant elements, which I referred to as cacophonies in this article. Sometimes, the cacophonies even subvert the main melody. The contradictions between main melodies and cacophonies present difficulties to the arousal of national pride and the creation of a unified envisioning of the country.

Collectivism versus Individualism
In previous interviews, Wu Jing claimed that Wolf Warrior II has a Chinese core. However, the strong presence of individual heroism is borrowed from Hollywood, as many Hollywood productions promote individualism, whereas Chinese productions typically do not.[35]  It is in discordance with the sense of collective pride and collectivism that most main melody films address as their main theme. Throughout the film, Leng is the single most important character who saves everyone’s lives. Even though he receives help from a Chinese veteran and at the very end, from the Chinese military, he is still portrayed as the greatest hero in this film. He alone steps out and takes the leadership responsibility to unite the originally divided Chinese and African factory workers, as he is the only person who earns respect and authority from both sides. His figure is almost superhero-like as he singlehandedly does everything and makes every decision. He is so successful as a hero that the antagonist declares to the rebel army, “If you can kill Leng, you will be the king of the country” (1:11:60). In this sense, the principal antagonist takes Leng as a symbol of Chinese power and disregards the military power of the Chinese navy. While Wu Jing stated that he wanted to arouse national pride by telling the Chinese story in a Chinese style, the film’s storyline mimics Western productions.

International Peace and Domestic Injustice

One scene that particularly contradicts and subverts the main nationalistic melody happens at the beginning of the film to explain how Leng Feng leaves the army. The film starts with a funeral scene, where Leng is paying tribute to his deceased comrade from the army. A local gang breaks in and demands that the deceased soldier’s family demolish their house and give up their land. Leng steps up to protect the powerless family and uses force when the gang members start to attack. While local police arrive in the middle of the fighting, they take no actions to protect local citizens. Instead, they warn Leng for his use of force and point their gun at him. Because of the unpermitted use of violence, Leng is forced out of the army. The confrontation between the police and Leng indicates the potential existence of collusion between local gang members and police officers and by no means attunes to the main melody either promoted by the state or depicted in the film. Contradictory to the generally positive main melody, this scene emphasizes the social injustices faced by the common Chinese people in their ordinary lives.

When Wu Jing was asked about this scene, he avoided talking about his decision to include forceful demolition in the film. While he confirmed that this scene shows social injustice, he insisted that his intention was to lead the audience to pay attention to the contributions of the army, and the scene can be replaced by any other scene that has to do with social injustice. While he did not mention patriotism in his answer, the inclusion of this scene is ironic in its nature. The film mentions multiple times that soldiers will conform to and execute the orders of the state to protect people’s lives and national interest. It implies that soldiers are the ones who have contributed the most to keep the country peaceful. However, this scene shows that even though they follow state orders and are very patriotic, soldiers do not always receive good results or rewards when they return home from the army or even when they are still in the army. The soldiers’ contribution to protect the Chinese people and territory and keep international peace creates a sharp contrast with their suffering from domestic injustice. Their patriotism does not pay off or bring any benefits. Therefore, it hampers the audience’s ability to take in the nationalist sentiments in the film.

Reinterpreting the Main Melody: A Study of Douban Reviews

While the production of main melody films has been examined by scholars from various perspectives, there has not been much success in analyzing their effectiveness in promoting political ideologies. Andrew Higson suggests that national cinema would be incomplete without the consumption side and calls for researchers to study the thoughts of the audiences in “The Concept of National Cinema” when he looks at different national cinemas around the world.[36] Film scholars who focus specifically on Chinese main melody films, such as Chris Berry and Mary Farquhar, have suggested that audiences develop different interpretations and may be affected differently because of their complicated affiliations to other factors and identities.[37] However, they mainly focus on the theoretical discussion of the composition of national cinema and do not include an analysis of the audience’s receptions of particular movies.

Building on the previous scholarship suggestions, several scholars have proposed methods to look at the receptions of movies and how they have provided an opportunity for the public to actively engage in the identity construction process. Stephanie Donald claims that since the audiences are pre-exposed to history and social reality, they tend to rethink the political imagery. She emphasizes that scholars should treat Chinese cinema as an institution of civil society where different interpretations of films are involved.[38] However, she only emphasizes the existence of potential alternative interpretations and does not study the actual responses from the public. Hongmei Yu applies Stuart Hall’s reception theory in “The Politics of Images: Chinese Cinema in the Context of Globalization” to discuss nationalism in Chinese cinema.[39] Hall suggests that when understanding cultural products, the audience often does not follow or identify with the ideas embedded and promoted by the producers in the encoding process (which he refers to as the preferred readings). On the other hand, they often produce different readings, either different from the preferred readings (negotiated readings), or in direct conflict with the preferred readings (oppositional readings), depending on the social context.[40] While Yu includes examples of movies that have created different readings, her main focus stays on the intricate relationship between the producers and the state in the encoding process.

This section uses Douban’s movie review section to understand common moviegoers’ reactions to the main melodic elements in Wolf Warrior II. It investigates whether people have developed different readings of the same material and whether the box office success of Wolf Warrior II translates to people’s identification with the main melody. Established in 2005, Douban’s movie section has been widely used by Chinese film critics and the public to rate movies and post both short comments and long reviews. In 2016, Douban had attracted 300 million monthly active users, and scholars have used it as a tool to access public reception of cultural products, including films.[41] According to a report published by Iresearch Consulting Group, Douban users are mostly young people living in first-tier and new first-tier cities in China.[42] Over eighty-five percent of its users are eighteen to thirty-five years old, and a large majority hold a degree equivalent to or higher than a college degree. Since the China Film Art Research Center’s survey shows that the majority of the audience of Wolf Warrior II is twelve to thirty-four years old, the Douban user demographics reflect the Wolf Warrior II audience demographics to a large extent.[43]

Wolf Warrior II has gathered over 680,000 ratings and over 230,000 short reviews on Douban.[44] Despite its box office success, it receives a score of only 7.1 on a scale of 10, and over 45 percent of all reviewers rate this movie as three stars or less (out of five stars). At the same time, its reviews are very polarized: the top positive and top negative reviews each received 39,148 and 35,822 supporters respectively, indicating that Chinese domestic audiences have very divided views of Wolf Warrior II.[45] This section categorizes and analyzes sixty-four short reviews with over 500 supporters that range from one to five stars to investigate the factors that have led to its box office success.[46]

Most users have identified the main melodic and nationalist elements that Wu Jing tries to incorporate in the film. However, these elements have elicited both positive and negative feedback from the audience. One reviewer who gives the film a four-star rating comments that “As a Chinese, the two-hour movie presents China’s powerful and inviolable position that even the protagonist’s experience seems unrealistic, I can still feel the strong sense of national pride in my heart” and receives 20,441 supporters. This commenter recognizes the fictional part of the film, but still resonates with the preferred reading in which the portrayal of China’s image is largely positive. In comparison, reviewers who give the film one- or two-star ratings mostly see the nationalist sentiment as an artificial insertion by the producer and do not support such overt ideological indoctrination. For example, the top one-star comment, which receives 23,399 supporters, states: “We used to laugh at individual heroism, but we didn’t think it would be harder for all-powerful warriors to be tied up with patriotism.” Many commenters find the presence of nationalism to be awkward and pretentious. The polarized reviews show that while both supporters and critics are able to detect the intentional assertion of the nationalistic main melody in the film, they are not equally influenced by the politically charged scenes. The inclusion of main melody can be productive and counterproductive at the same time, depending on people’s original feelings and impressions about main melody.

When closely analyzing the positive comments on Wolf Warrior II, an interesting phenomenon occurs. Despite its restless effort to arouse national pride among the audience, many people gave high ratings (four to five stars) not because of their emotional sentiments, but because of its filming techniques and fighting scenes. Several audiences described the film as a parallel to action movies produced in Hollywood and received many supporters on Douban. One four-star rating with 8,675 supporters states: “The beginning underwater scene can be counted as the top scenes in Chinese films; the existence of vessels, missiles, and tanks in a commercial film is so crazy; the camera use and laughing point mimics Hollywood blockbusters.” Some mention that the quality of Wolf Warrior II really surprised them because they did not have high expectations about the quality of a main melody film. They assumed that Wolf Warrior II would follow in the footsteps of old low-quality state productions. One comment that has 5,380 supporters even states that while the audience despises the main melody plots, Wu Jing’s filming technique is good and makes up for the overly nationalist storyline. These positive rating comments show that the audience was aware of the main melody that exists in Wolf Warrior II, but the majority gave high ratings for the filming quality and not because of their identification with the embedded political ideologies.

Contrary to the popular belief that main melody films function only as political propaganda, they have actually provided a space for both private movie producers and domestic audiences to renegotiate their own identities and even challenge the national identity that is artificially created and propagated by the state. The high box office returns are results of the successful commercialization of the film industry and do not reflect the audience’s complete conformity to state-approved political ideologies. Many Chinese domestic filmgoers intentionally separate political ideologies from other film content when viewing main melodic blockbusters. The comments on Wolf Warrior II exhibit this phenomenon and demonstrate a growing trend of viewers setting aside the nationalist sentiments and focusing on the artistic and production aspects. When a film contains ideas that potentially subvert the dominant state-sponsored main melody, people tend to pay more attention to the intricacies of these scenes and formulate their receptions accordingly.

Discussion

Wolf Warrior II Phenomenon: The Spring for Main Melody Films?

Several critics have raised the idea that when the market of main melody films does not require much state intervention to attract audiences, the spring has arrived for main melody films.[47] They believe that the emergence of main melodic blockbusters and their ability to attract audience under market rules mean that the public has developed a welcoming attitude to main melody films. According to this standard, the success of Wolf Warrior II signals the spring for main melody films. However, these scholars fail to distinguish mainstream from main melody and main melodic blockbusters from traditional main melody films. The success of Wolf Warrior II may not be replicable in the future and generalizable to the entire main melody film industry because, in nature, it is still a commercial film that tries to cater to the audiences’ preferences. The statement that the spring has arrived for main melody films implicates that when people are willing to go into cinemas and pay for these films, they are also embracing the political ideologies contained in the films.

While some people may have welcomed main melody, main melody films should not simply be understood as main(stream) melody films. This article has shown that despite the claim that main melody films embody mainstream opinions from the public, the distinction between main melody and mainstream still exists.[48] Main melody is still a top-down ideology that is recognized and promoted by the state whereas mainstream reflects the public opinion from the bottom up. Although the audience of main melody films has grown, they have also contributed to a more diverse public discourse that is not dominated by main melody. There may be a tendency for main melody to become mainstream, but film critics and scholars should not confuse the two categories. Mixed use of these terms will generate misunderstanding not only about the reception and effectiveness of main melody films, but also about people’s opinions in general.

Are Young People the Easy Targets of Main Melody?

Young people are the main population group that contributes to the Chinese box office, as they compose a large percentage of regular moviegoers. However, they are not necessarily more susceptible to main melody ideas. Many of them are heavily influenced by foreign filming and storytelling technique. Because of the time and scope limits, this article does not discuss in detail the demographics of Wolf Warrior II audiences and how that has influenced the general reception of the film. Douban pages do not provide sufficient information, because the website is designed more like a forum than a social media site. Commenters do not reveal their actual identities on Douban. While on the one hand, the anonymity protects the reviewers’ information and the integrity of their comments, it has also created problems for an in-depth analysis of how people’s specific backgrounds influence their reception of main melody.

In future research projects, it will be necessary to have a combination of quantitative and qualitative analyses from an interdisciplinary approach. One potential way to study main melody’s influences on different groups of the general population is to combine focus groups with mass-scale data mining so that the reception of movies can be investigated in both depth and breadth. Focus groups help to construct qualitative knowledge about the deep reasons behind people’s different tastes and reviews. Combined with mass-scale data mining, this approach provides researchers with a holistic understanding of how people of different socioeconomic backgrounds, age groups, and ethnic identities formulate their ideas on national identity and develop a sense of national pride.


What Do We Mean When We Label a Cultural Product “Main Melody”?

Are main melody films just weapons of the state’s propaganda bureau to infiltrate the public discourse with state-sponsored ideologies? This article answers with a clear no to this question. We cannot correlate films’ box office successes to people’s identification with the political ideologies presented in the films. However, what are the implications behind the use of the term “main melody”? The common use of this term, especially in news reports, has created stereotypical dichotomies between the state and the market, and between the state and the people.

This article has proved that as China’s main melody film industry increasingly relies on the market force and tries to tailor itself to the taste of the audience, these dichotomies do not hold up. They imply confrontational attitudes among these different stakeholders whereas, in reality, China’s state, market, and the public are closely connected and constantly interact with each other in public spheres such as Chinese cinema. Chinese audiences are actively participating in the discourse of their national identity and China’s future image as a global power.

Should We Abandon This Term?

This article uses “main melodic blockbuster” to describe movies such as Wolf Warrior II because there are various aspects of the film that fit the characteristics of this particular category. However, the analysis has also shown that in addition to analyzing the political values and political ideologies of these cultural products, we also need to pay attention to other aspects such as the value of their filming techniques, aesthetic values, and marketing strategies.

This article has questioned some of the stereotypes that people have about main melody films and shown that not all such movies use or present main melody in the same way. However, there are still important questions that remain unsolved for future scholars. Should we as scholars and people who are interested in Chinese culture and society use this term to categorize all films that include elements of the state ideology or nationalist sentiments, no matter how commercial these films are? Should we continue to use the term “main melody” when some movies are only including main melodic elements to pass Chinese censorship? How does the label “main melody” influence our perception of those so-called main melody films before we even get a chance to see them and when we conduct analyses? These are all important questions worth our discussion in the future.


Endnotes

[1] 犯我中华者虽远必诛 (Fan Wozhonghuazhe Suiyuan Bizhu)

[2] Jing Wu, Interview by Zhian Wang, Jumian, Aug. 23, 2017. www.bilibili.com/video/av13684010?from=search&seid=10437599467604607949

[3] Zheping Huang, “China’s Top 10 Box Office Hits of All Time Include Four Domestic Films Released in 2017,” Quartz, last modified Jan. 02, 2018. qz.com/1169192/chinas-all-time-top-10-box-office-list-has-four-domestic-films-released-i n-2017-including-wolf-warrior-2/

[4] Several newspaper articles and scholarly publications have adopted the term Wolf Warrior phenomenon to describe its box office success. Examples include the BBC’s comment that Wolf Warrior II has become a phenomenon (www.bbc.com/news/blogs-china-blog-40811952) and Stephen Teo’s publication on Screen titled “The Chinese Film Market and The Wolf Warrior II Phenomenon” (academic.oup.com/screen/article/60/2/322/5520091).

[5] 中华人民共和国公民:当你在海外遭遇危险,不要放弃!请记住,在你身后,有一个强大的祖国!(Zhonghua renmin gongheguo gongmin: dangni zaihaiwai zaoyu weixian, buyaofangqi! Qing jizhu, zainishenhou, youyige qiangdade zuguo!) The official Chinese passport does not have this phrase printed on the passport itself.

[6] People’s Daily WeChat Account, “Zhanlang2 Weisha Huode Buxianghua,” People’s Daily, last modified Jul. 31, 2017. app.peopleapp.com/Api/600/DetailApi/shareArticle?type=0&article_id=666908

[7] Mengdi Niu and Tong Chen, “Zhecaishi zhuxuanlvyingpian de moyang,” Guangming Daily, last modified Aug. 8, 2017, epaper.gmw.cn/gmrb/html/2017-08/08/nw.D110000gmrb_20170808_1-09.htm?div=-1

[8] Beijing Bureau, “Wolf Warrior 2: The Nationalist Action Film Storming China,” BBC News, last modified Aug. 4, 2017. www.bbc.com/news/blogs-china-blog-40811952

[9] Mandy Zuo, “The Reason for Wolf Warrior 2’s Runaway Success in China is What’s Keeping Western Viewers Away,” SCMP, published Aug. 8, 2017. www.scmp.com/news/china/society/article/2105954/reason-wolf-warrior-2s-r...

[10] Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism (New York: Verso, 1983).

[11] Alan Williams, ed., Film and Nationalism (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2002), 6.

[12] Baiqing Zhang and Leilei Jia, eds., Zhongguo Dangdaidianying Fazhanshi Shang (Culture and Art Publishing House), 63.

[13] Leigh Jenco, “Chinese Liberalism,” Bevir, Mark (ed.), Encyclopedia of Political Theory (London: SAGE Publications, 2010), 164–166.

[14] Ibid., 35.

[15] Ying Zhang, “Zhuxuanlv gainian de tichu” (The Emergence of the Concept of Main Melody), in Xinshiqi yilai Zhuxuanlv Dianying Yanjiu (The Study of Main Melody Films since the New Era) (Shanghai: Shanghai Sanlian Culture Publishing House, 2017).

[16] Paul Pickowicz, China on film: A Century of Exploration, Confrontation, and Controversy (Lanham, Md.: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2013), 315.

[17] Rui Zhang, “Chinese cinema from 1989 to the middle of the 1990s,” in The Cinema of Feng Xiaogang: Commercialization and Censorship in Chinese cinema after 1989 (Aberdeen, Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 2008), 33.

[18] Ibid., 38.

[19] Ainhoa Marzol Aranburu. “The Film Industry in China: Past and Present,” Journal of Evolutionary Studies in Business 2, no. 1 (2017).

[20] Early main melody films produced by the state include The Birth of New China (1989), Jiao Yulu (1990), and Zhou Enali (1992).

[21] Xiaomei Chen, “Breaking Out of the ‘Main Melody’: Meng Bing and His ‘Monumental Theatre’” in Staging China, New Theatres in the Twenty-First Century, edited by Ruru Li (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2016), 85.

[22] Box office information for these films: Assembly—$35 million, 2nd place in 2017 Chinese box office ranking; The Founding of a Republic—$62.5 million, 3rd place in 2009 ranking; The Message—$29.2 million, 7th in 2009 ranking. Information retrieved from Box Office Mojo.

[23] Liuliang Mingxing 流量明星.

[24] Xiaobing Tang, “How (not) to watch a Chinese blockbuster,” Visual Culture in Contemporary China (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2015).

[25] “The main melodization of commercial films (商业电影的主旋律化 Shangye Dianying de Zhuxualvhua).”

[26] Yuqi Jiang, new.qq.com/rain/a/20191008A0B3LF, last accessed Dec. 12, 2019

[27] Rui Zhang, “Chinese cinema from 1989 to the middle of the 1990s,” The Cinema of Feng Xiaogang: Commercialization and Censorship in Chinese cinema after 1989 (Aberdeen, Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 2008).

[28] The protagonist of Operation Red Sea is a group of special forces operatives. While the film does spend more time portraying one of the operatives, the team moves as a unit in performing tasks and saving people.

[29] Baiqing Zhang and Leilei Jia, eds., Zhongguo Dangdaidianying Fazhanshi Shang (Culture and Art Publishing House); Ying Zhang, “Zhuxuanlv gainian de tichu” (The Emergence of the Concept of Main Melody), in Xinshiqi yilai Zhuxuanlv Dianying Yanjiu (Shanghai: Shanghai Sanlian Culture Publishing House, 2017).

[30] Hongmei Yu, “Visual Spectacular, Revolutionary Epic, and Personal Voice: The Narration of History in Chinese Main Melody Films” (Modern Chinese Literature and Culture 25, no. 2 (2013): 168–218), and William Callahan, “History, Identity, and Security: Producing and Consuming Nationalism in China” (Critical Asian Studies 38, no. 2: 179–208) both discuss the ways in which the state has used these films to retell history to its citizens to promote patriotism and nationalism.

[31] “Century of Humiliation” refers to the period of Western and Japanese imperialism and colonialism in China between 1839 and 1949. This phrase is commonly used in official documents, slogans, and national museums.

[32] 1905 Film, CCTV6 Movie Channel, accessed Dec. 14, 2019, www.1905.com/news/20170728/1204753.shtml

[33] Main melody films are produced to target domestic Chinese citizens and are not designed to appeal to the larger Chinese diaspora. At the same time, they often do not receive good box office performances in regions such as Hong Kong and Taiwan, as people dislike the heavy presence of Chinese nationalism and state-sponsored political ideologies in main melody films. Non-mainland Chinese-speaking regions also tend to support their own local productions and have greater access to foreign films in general.

[34] Wu Jing, Interview by Evan Osnos, Newyorker.com/video, The New Yorker, Jan. 01, 2018. video.newyorker.com/watch/wolf-warrior-ii-captures-china-s-newfound-identity.

[35] Chinese main melody films often portray collectivism instead of individualism, as collectivism is a nationally appraised value. Ying Zhang, “Zhuxuanlv gainian de tichu” (The Emergence of the Concept of Main Melody), in Xinshiqi yilai Zhuxuanlv Dianying Yanjiu (The Study of Main Melody Films since the New Era) (Shanghai: Shanghai Sanlian Press, 2017).

[36] Andrew Higson, “The Concept of National Cinema,” Screen 30, no. 4 (1989): 36–47.

[37] Chris Berry and Mary Farquhar, China on Screen: Cinema and Nation (New York: Columbia University Press, 2006).

[38] Stephanie Donald, Public Secrets, Public Spaces: Cinema and Civility in China (Lanham, Md.: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2000).

[39] Yu, Hongmei. “Visual Spectacular, Revolutionary Epic, and Personal Voice: The Narration of History in Chinese Main Melody Films.” Modern Chinese Literature and Culture 25, no. 2, 168–218.

[40] Stuart Hall, “Encoding/Decoding,” in Media and Cultural Studies: Keywords, Durham and Kellner, eds. Wiley-Blackwell, 2012.

[41] According to The Internet and New Social Formation in China: Fandom Publics in the Making by Weiyu Zhang, in 2014, Douban announced that the number of registered users had reached 75 million and there were 3.2 billion movie reviews in total. In 2016, Douban had 300 million monthly active users.

[42] Iresearch, Douban Yonghu Huaxinag ji Meiti Jiazhi Yanjiu, 2017.

[43] Guangming Daily, Jianjundaye yu zhanlang2 manyidu defen po lishijilu. Xinhua Net, last modified Aug, 4, 2017, www.xinhuanet.com/newmedia/2017-08/04/c_136499709.htm.

[44] movie.douban.com/subject/26363254/

[45] Number of supporters = number of users who vote the comment to be useful.

[46] Among those reviews, seven people consider Wolf Warrior II as an overall five-star movie, sixteen people give it four stars, and forty-one people rate it as three-star or below, with the majority giving it two stars.

[47] For examples, see Xinshiqi yilai Zhuxuanlv Dianying Yanjiu (The Study of Main Melody Films since the New Era) by Ying Zhang, Zhuxuanlv Dianying de Chuntian by Bo Li, and Zhuxuanlv Dianying de Shangyehua Nixi by Zhongjie Jiang.

[48] In Xinshiqi yilai Zhuxuanlv Dianying Yanjiu (The Study of Main Melody Films since the New Era), Ying Zhang describes main melody films as main(stream) melody films.


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