Fleet Week: OPERATION RED SEA

On February 1st the Chinese government introduced a special five-year visa for people of Chinese descent, all you need is a parent, grandparent or ancestor who is a Chinese citizen. It’s general purpose, so if you’re eligible, you could literally apply for the visa for no other reason than “because I want to”.

Put a pin in this for a moment.

About two weeks after this new visa was implemented a movie was released– Dante Lam’s Operation Red Sea. Unfortunately, the titles are basically the same in English and in Chinese, so I can’t make a joke about how in China it’s known as “The Sea Father’s Wrath Upon the Unworthy Peons of This Planet”. It’s loosely based on the evacuation of about six hundred Chinese citizens from Yemen during their 2015 civil war, and there was really only one thought that went through my head as I was watching:

“I FUCKING LOVE THIS MOVIE!”

The movie is a cavalcade of Chinese movie stars (alongside one Australian) including Zhang Yi, Johnny Huang, Du Jiang, Hai Qing, Wang Yutian, Jiang Luxia, Yin Fang, Henry Prince Mak and Guo Jiahao. This band of ridiculously photogenic young people (seriously, I don’t think any of them are over forty) play Jiaolong Assault Team, and we’re first introduced to them slowing down a team of Somali pirates on a Chinese naval vessel, buying time for the more heavily armed vessels to arrive. They succeed in foiling the pirates, though their sniper receives a spine wound that requires him to be replaced with Gu Shun (played by Johnny Huang). After this, a civil war in the fictional Middle-Eastern nation of Yewaire breaks out and the team is sent to evacuate the Chinese citizens in the area. Though they succeed, the team find out that the terrorist organisation, Zaka, has yellowcake uranium and they plan to make a bomb out of it. After their convoy is ambushed, Jiaolong Team goes in to take down the terrorist leader Sayyid, take back the yellowcake and hopefully rescue the Chinese hostages still held prisoner by Zaka.

As an action film, this movie is unparalleled. The amount of violence in this movie rivals that of some splatter films. People get blown up consistently in this movie and we often see all the gory details. During the convoy ambush, so many people either get dismembered, disfigured, or disembowelled, and we witness almost everything. I don’t think I’ll see an image as gruesome as that ambush scene, or a more balls-to-the-wall final action climax like the one that was in Operation Red Sea.

Honestly, I’m getting excited just thinking about that final action sequence which may have lasted a whole third of the movie.

Operation Red Sea has been likened to that of Top Gun or the Rambo movies, i.e. jingoistic propaganda designed to stoke the fires of nationalism amongst the populace. And yes, I’m not going to deny it, Operation Red Sea is exactly the same in that respects. It’s no secret that this movie is state-sanctioned propaganda moonlighting as an action flick, that it wouldn’t exist if it didn’t extol the virtues of the Chinese state and the might of its military in order to drum up support for, and maintain the legitimacy of the CCP. But as many people have said before, is it so weird when America has been doing the same with their movies for several decades? This is a topic that I’m sure has been discussed to death, so instead I’m going to talk about something else.

Remember the story about the new Chinese visas? China is now looking to bring its fifty million strong diaspora back into the fold to help develop its economy even more, and one of the ways they’re trying to court us is through their media. When I was watching Operation Red Sea, I couldn’t help but feel like the movie was trying to speak directly to me. The movie was trying to tell me that this strong nation, whose people commands respect wherever they go, was my nation as well. And I got caught up in it. I felt empowered when watching this movie, the men weren’t reduced to sexless caricatures that the white audience could ridicule, and the women weren’t just exotic dragon ladies who existed only for the consumption of white men.

And speaking of the women, even though there were really only two of them in this movie, they were all badass in their own ways. Tong Li (the only woman in the squad played by Jiang Luxia) was a goddamn Valkyrie on the field, she was fierce, she was fearsome and I am in love with the carnage that she wreaks. Xia Nan (played by Hai Qing), the journalist who uncovered the yellowcake plot couldn’t fight worth a damn, but she had a will of tempered steel and more courage than I would have had in the same situation. I mean, would you trade places with a hostage in the middle of a terrorist base in order to get them to safety?

This isn’t the first time China has done this sort of thing. In 2017, there was Wolf Warrior 2, a similarly patriotic movie about a badass Chinese dude wreaking havoc in an unnamed African nation. At the end of the movie, there was a picture of a Chinese passport and a caption that read: “Citizens of the People’s Republic of China. When you encounter danger in a foreign land, do not give up! Please remember, at your back stands a strong motherland.”

This wasn’t the exact endscreen, but the words on the passport are still the same.

To be frank, it’s difficult not to take these messages to heart. Living abroad in a western nation, away from the “motherland” as Wolf Warrior 2 puts it, I’ve seen my fair share of racism and bigotry. There has been a noticeable uptick of right-wing nationalism here in Australia, especially after that orange mass of sentient dick smegma was elected (yes, your idiotic decision to vote in that shit-smear had a ripple effect on the wider world, America). There is an incessant sense that Australia doesn’t want me here, that I’m only tolerated, not accepted.

So, it’s a nice fantasy to indulge in: to just cast aside the nation that has never accepted me and to go back to a nation that will, bringing along every single state secret that I could possibly get my hands on as one final “fuck you”. But I would just be trading one form of right wing nationalism for another, just one with me as the majority rather than the minority. Hell, Operation Red Sea even showed me what would happen if I were to fall for this highly tempting forbidden fruit during the aftermath of the convoy ambush scene: a bus full of black and middle-eastern people reduced to a pulpy red mass.

So, yes, watching Operation Red Sea was a cathartic experience, and I loved it when I was in the cinema. But now, as I look back on it, I feel a little sickened that I allowed a movie like that to engross me so deeply.