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Film Review: Toxic Masculinity with Chinese Characteristics

Watching Wolf Warrior II has to be a painful experience for anyone who has any contempt for human stupidity and its shameless display. The film is filled with spectacular killings, in the name of Good and in the name of Evil, but all within the grammar of hyper and hyper-toxic masculinity. It tells the same story about the salvation of Africa, an Africa again flattened to a horror image of war, disease, and poverty but also occasionally blessed by idyllic nature and strolling lions. Every scene reproduces exactly the same stereotypes and tropes seen in Hollywood hero movies, except now a Chinese man carries out the mission usually assigned to a white hero.

Two issues are at stake: China’s rise and Chinese masculinity in the context of that rise. The film understands China’s rise as a masculine rivalry between men: between the old savior (the white man) and the new savior (the Chinese man), China and the West. Although the story takes place in Africa, the core of the film has little to do with Africa or Africans. The romance of Third-Worldism lingers at best only in the background. Instead, it is very much a long, violent, and sensational pissing game between two alpha-males, both appropriately named: Leng Feng (literally“cold blade”), the Chinese former soldier, and Big Daddy, the white mercenary.

Some suggest that China as the new global power desperately needs a new narrative, especially one that includes a Hollywood style hero. The film’s huge domestic success is therefore attributed to this new and indeed unusual figure of the Chinese “lone wolf.” He acts on his own, despite the “strong fatherland” that the film pretends to pay tribute to. The fatherland is ridden with social injustice at home and almost naively adhering to the UN law abroad, which impedes its army from entering the war zone to save its countrymen. The almost naïve individual heroism “with Chinese characteristics” therefore seems severely lacking in imagination. “Big Daddy” and his white-supremacist worldview still dictate the logic of the senses throughout the film. This is in fact nothing new. As the historian Huang Kewu points out: the “ideal masculinity” in Chinese history has changed dramatically from the “weak scholar” to the “muscular fit” with the advent of the Western modern/colonial and capitalist/pharmaceutical forces in modern China. This (literally) muscle-flexing Chinese hero wholeheartedly accepts and embodies this colonial imposition. His rivalry with the white villain changes the component but not the logic of the game. Is this what we want to see of a rising China? Another US-style militarism and neo-colonial imperialism will only lead the planet to total devastation, which the film ironically, through its highly stereotypical portrayal of “Africa,” accurately captures.

What saves the film from being another typical colonial narrative of salvation is perhaps the premise of Leng’s mission: he is set out not to save Africa (which is the motivation of most white heroes) but to save his Chinese compatriots. Yet, the iconography of the flag-bearing warriors moving through a war-torn African village screaming “I am Chinese” toward the end of the film is at best a euphoric moment of nationalism. What remains hopeful amidst the sanguinary apocalypse in an increasingly masculinized and militarized international politics of our era, is the figure of the humanitarian doctor Rachel Smith. Leng takes her guns and says: “your role is to save people, not to kill people.” It is not a coincidence that this character is Chinese-American. Does the filmmaker (who also plays the “cold blade”) find in her a hope to bridge these two world powers, in a way that is beyond the phallocracy of the gun?

First published as part of the film review series "The Rise of China and Gender/Sexual Politics" initiated, complied and edited by Petrus Liu and Lisa Rofel, on the MCLC Resource Center in February 2018.

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