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TV and Movies

Operation Red Sea is China's take on the gung-ho Hollywood military epic

Director Dante Lam spotlights Chinese special forces in a film that draws comparisons to Ridley Scott's Black Hawk Down.

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Operation Red Sea  Director Dante Lam signs the poster of at the New York Asian Film Festival.

Marrian Zhou/CNET

Soldiers stuck in a foreign land. Terrorists roaming the country. Hostages who need saving. Gory wounds and tears. Tank battles. Dramatic sweeping action shots.

Nope, this isn't the latest bombastic Michael Bay or Ridley Scott production. This is China taking its shot at the patriotic military epic. 

Operation Red Sea marks a departure from traditional Chinese action films that focus on World War II or the Communist Revolution. It's also part of a trend in the past three years of creating more contemporary tributes to military exploits, such as Wolf Warrior II and Operation Mekong. Red Sea, directed by Hong Kong filmmaker Dante Lam, represents a high point in Chinese cinema, and is the second-highest grossing film of all time in China, well ahead of US blockbusters like Furious 7 or Avengers: Infinity War.

Operation Red Sea is a gung-ho military film that invites comparisons to Scott's Black Hawk Down or Bay's 13 Hours, but invites criticism that it's merely propaganda funded by the Chinese government. The film, however, breaks from the patriotic Hollywood military formula by preaching peace rather than glorifying war. It also touches on journalism, a sensitive topic in China.

"We often refer to movies like [this] as 'symptom films,' because they capture something of the prevailing social zeitgeist -- in this case, growing Chinese national pride and confidence in the military," wrote Li Yang, a film theory professor at Peking University, on Sixtone. "The significance of Operation Red Sea lies in the way it discards the propaganda-laden historicism we are so used to seeing in traditional Chinese war movies."

The plot revolves around Chinese special forces racing to prevent terrorists from harming Chinese citizens and rescuing hostages in Yemen. The film is loosely based on the Chinese Navy's evacuation of Yemen in 2015.

Red Sea is a follow-up to Lam's Operation Mekong, which similarly served as a military tribute but focused on a Thai drug cartel. He was awarded Excellence in Action Cinema at the New York Asian Film Festival held at Walter Reade Theatre on Saturday. I had the pleasure to interview Director Lam, a very humble man with a mellow voice, as if the mild manner was to tone down the sharpness in his eyes.

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Director Dante Lam receives the Daniel A. Craft Award for Excellence in Action Cinema at the New York Asian Film Festival. On his left is Joanne Chu, director of the Hong Kong Economic and Trade Office in New York. NYAFF Executive Director Samuel Jamier stands on his right.

Marrian Zhou/CNET

In the West's eyes

It's no surprise Operation Red Sea is considered propaganda by some critics. Just look at the credits at the beginning and you'll see "The P.L.A. Navy Government TV Art Central of China" -- a direct Chinese military division collaborating with Lam.

"I've heard that President Xi had watched the film," Lam said in Mandarin. "And I've heard that he liked it a lot."

But that's not to say it's a film that should be easily dismissed.

"[It's] war propaganda that comes off as antiwar, a patriotic film so carried away by its own visceral, pulverizing violence that patriotism almost becomes an afterthought," wrote Maggie Lee, chief Asia film critic at the Variety.

Lam said he hesitated about embarking on full patriotism in his movies when he first made Operation Mekong.

"I wasn't sure how the audience would perceive this type of film when I first made Operation Mekong," said Lam. "But the success of that film helped me gain confidence in making Operation Red Sea. Though it wasn't easy."

On the criticism that Red Sea is just a remake of Hollywood war films, Lam said he's proud of the comparison.

"To me, those Hollywood films are classics and sort of my 'textbook.' I wanted to pursue that 'epicness' in my films," said Lam. "The upbeat rhythm, the expressiveness, this film is the Chinese version of Black Hawk Down. I think we've reached the same level with a much smaller budget."

(Black Hawk Down cost $92 million, Red Sea cost $70 million.)

Lam's next film will also collaborate with a government division, transportation, and focus more on rescue than blazing guns. Though working with the authorities gave him quite the headache during the filming of Red Sea.

Dealing with bureaucracy

Idea. Submit for Approval. Wait. Approved. Repeat.

That pretty much sums up Dante Lam's struggles with the bureaucracy that stem from dealing with the government. From borrowing frigates from the navy to details during filming, Lam said he was in close negotiation with the authorities.

"Government-sponsored films need a lot of approvals along the way," Lam said. "People think that I would've made three movies in three years but I've only made one. They don't understand how time-consuming it can be."

Lam said he's willing to put in the time if it means turning out a movie. And with the government's backing, the director had a lot to play with.

One scene employed six Chinese warships, including the frigate Linyi -- the actual ship used in the Yemen evacuation mission -- cutting through the waves in slow motion into Yemen's territorial waters. With the helicopter's rotor spinning in the background, the special forces team armed with machine guns and sniper rifles ran on deck (also in slow motion, of course) ready to execute their mission.

"To us, we're making a movie," Lam said. "To the navy, it's a mission with very specific procedures. Everything we do is monitored through the satellite in the command center, if we suddenly change route, it will be problematic for the navy."

Embracing journalism

As a reporter, the Chinese-French journalist character in the film, Xia Nan, naturally stood out.

After all, the Chinese government is hostile toward journalists. Chinese citizens aren't allowed to work for foreign media in entirety, and many work as translators and fixers without bylines despite helping foreign correspondents with interviews and information gathering. A Quartz article detailed the experience of many nameless Chinese journalists working for foreign media outlets.

Yet the film shined a spotlight on Xia, even if she's a French citizen. She is a tenacious war correspondent working on the frontline in Yemen, restlessly working to reveal the terrorists' scheme, determined to save her kidnapped fixer, and even offering to take a hostage's place. Xia is a seeker of truth, an excellent investigative reporter by Western standards, and a heroine of the film.

If Operation Red Sea is a propaganda film, as many pointed out, is Xia a benign gesture to include and support Chinese journalists with foreign passports? Would the Chinese military actually help such journalists in a conflict zone? Or is this a fictional stimulation for China's own journalism industry?

For a military action blockbuster, Operation Red Sea surely exceeded the expectations.

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