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War films feature some contrasting self-images

By Conal Urquhart | China Daily | Updated: 2017-09-09 07:27

War films dominated the summer film releases, and you could not find two more contrasting examples of the genre than Wolf Warrior II and Dunkirk. In one sense, the only thing that links them is the loose heading of "war" and the theme of evacuation, but both have strong political messages.

Dunkirk is based on the escape of large parts of the British Army from continental Europe after the British and French armies were routed by the forces of Nazi Germany in 1940. Director Christopher Nolan conveys the sense of claustrophobia, doom and desperation felt by the encircled British as they are hemmed in by gray seas and gray skies around the northern French town of Dunkirk.

The film is uncomfortable to watch, and even the soundtrack is unsettling, especially when punctuated by the screech of German dive bombers. The film only lightens at the end, when the scale of the evacuation is revealed and the possibility of a brighter future is suggested. The violence of the film is impersonal, with shots from nowhere and torpedoes from under the sea. Only in the air does the combat seem more personal.

The evacuation of Dunkirk forms an important part of Britain's self-image, the victory clawed back from the defeat that preceded its solitary opposition to German domination in Europe and ultimately led to redemption in 1944 and 1945 with the liberation of Europe and the defeat of Germany and Italy - albeit with the help of the Soviet Union and the United States.

This self-image is a major facet of English nationalism, which often seems to be stuck in World War II and resents Britain's involvement with the European Union. Nigel Farage, a prominent anti-European political leader, tweeted: "I urge every youngster to watch Dunkirk".

But the romantic image of Britain's past is only possible with a great deal of cherry-picking. It is unlikely that we will see a film of Britain's greatest military disaster in Singapore in 1942, where it lost more soldiers than in Dunkirk, or a portrayal of its role in the 1948 partition of India, which led to the death or displacement of more than 10 million people.

China's Wolf Warrior II avoids historical pitfalls by being a fictional action thriller that only occasionally strays into realism. But director and lead actor Wu Jing still tries to project messages via the medium of an unashamedly entertaining action film. The film is set in a fictional African country where China is playing an important role in providing healthcare, economic development and security. While other international players leave the region amid a civil war, the People's Liberation Army Navy stands by and eventually comes to the rescue of Chinese and Africans.

The fictional world of Wu Jing is a mirror of China's Belt and Road Initiative development projects and the recent establishment of a Chinese base in Djibouti. Wu's message is that China is playing a major role in the world, and that provides the backdrop for his action movie.

Britain's future would be a problematic subject for filmmakers at the moment, so the past continues to provide a focus. Dunkirk was just the first of three films to be released this year that feature Britain's wartime prime minister Winston Churchill - the other two are Churchill and Darkest Hour. Maybe we will need to wait for the release of the 25th James Bond film in November 2019 to get some illumination about where Britain sees itself.

The author is a senior editor at China Daily UK. conal@mail.chinadailyuk.com

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