2023 Excellence in Visual Digital Storytelling, Small Newsroom finalist

What Do 355 Chinese and Foreign War Films Tell Us?

About the Project

Long a mainstay of Chinese cinema, Chinese war films have been a prominent feature of China’s domestic market in recent years. In the 2015 blockbuster Wolf Warrior, a Chinese Special Forces soldier played by star Wu Jing goes to Africa to fight terrorism and waving China’s national flag allows him to safely cross a rebel war zone.

The film 2021 film The Battle at Lake Changjin depicts a key battle of the Korean War (which China calls “The War to Resist America and Aid Korea”) and imbues the scene with today’s U.S.-China rivalry–a combination that made it the highest-grossing movie in Chinese history.

These new Chinese war movies are well-funded and have all the bells and whistles, from CGI action scenes to big stars, but international recognition and acclaim eludes them.

To find the differences between Chinese and foreign war films, the WHYNOT team watched 355 movies that were released between 2010 and 2022 that focused on modern warfare since the 20th century. WHYNOT collected, consolidated, and analyzed various film data grounded in film research and literature in order to find out why Chinese war films have always faced an inconspicuous and unbreakable “glass ceiling” in international film. How are they different from globally acclaimed war films and why do they struggle to impress international audiences? China’s official explanation that “international audiences can’t bear to see China becoming stronger” is not supported by the evidence.

In this data report, we presented the following findings:

1. Chinese war films are more often used to advocate mainstream ideological themes.
2. The output of Chinese war films is stable, but overall production quality is low.
3. Chinese war films emphasize “the all people’s war of resistance.”
4. 2018 brings an interesting turn for Chinese war films.
5. Chinese audiences rate Chinese war films unfavorably.

Since 2018, renderings of the main melody ideology have grown more and more violent, and have gone hand in hand with the rise in nationalism in China. The creation of Chinese war films is like eating a “hot patriotic meal” while contained under a solid “ceiling.”

After watching all 355 movies, we found some “undiscovered talent” within Chinese films as well as the possibility of breaking through the ceiling.

In order to add weight to war films and really connect with audiences, Chinese filmmakers must do the following: respect historical facts and characters; do not beautify, whitewash or sensationalize war; do not oversimplify characters into stereotypes; do not ignore common sense; do not avoid the horrors of war; and try to avoid war happening again. After all, promoting how precious peace is is the true value of a war film.