Discussion rages as Mel Gibson's ‘Hacksaw Ridge’ dominates Chinese mainland box office

By Wei Xi Source:Global Times Published: 2016/12/14 19:13:39

Discussion rages as ‘Hacksaw Ridge’ dominates mainland box office

Scenes from <em>Hacksaw Ridge</em> Photos: IC

Scenes from Hacksaw Ridge Photo: IC

Scenes from <em>Hacksaw Ridge</em> Photos: IC

Scenes from Hacksaw Ridge Photo: IC


While Mel Gibson is highly recognized overseas for his directorial work on films such as Braveheart (1995) and The Passion of the Christ (2004), he remained an unfamiliar name to most moviegoers in the Chinese mainland since only a few of his films have been shown here over the past decade.

However, Gibson's newest film, Hacksaw Ridge, looks ready to change the situation.

Currently regarded  as a "must-see" film in China, Hacksaw Ridge quickly dominated the mainland box office by grossing more than 100 million yuan ($14.48 million) in its first weekend in the country. In the week following its mainland premiere on December 8, talk about the film has spread like wildfire across the Chinese Internet as audiences have spent countless hours discussing the film's depiction of the brutality of war and the power of faith.

A different perspective

Hacksaw Ridge tells the real life story of Desmond Doss (Andrew Garfield), a combat medic who refuses to carry weapons onto the battlefield. Thinking he is either a maniac or a coward, his fellow soldiers and senior officers pick on and mock Doss during training. However, after he saves dozens of injured soldiers by himself while under heavy fire, he finally earns their admiration.

War films and TV dramas, especially those taking place during World War II, are one of the most commonly seen genres in China. However, a number of these works have received more criticism than applause. One of the biggest critiques is that they depict war in an unrealistic manner.  

The interesting thing is that disbelief is the reaction many Chinese moviegoers have had after watching Hacksaw Ridge. One thread running through discussions about the film is that many in the audience feel that if they didn't know the film was based on real people and real events, they would have thought it was an exaggerated advertisement for Christianity.

While Chinese writer and film critic Ye Xindai called the film's setting and presentation of the perfect lead character old and conservative, he praised Hacksaw Ridge's unique take on a war story. 

"The essence of a war is killing and death, but this film views things from this incredible perspective of saving people, and dedicates a lot of time to foreshadowing," Ye told the Global Times on Monday, adding that instead of playing up the joy of victory, as many Chinese war films and TV dramas do, Hacksaw Ridge depicts the horror of what it's like to fight on the front lines.  

Another film released not too long ago features a similar topic - Ang Lee's Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk. Many in the media have taken to comparing the two films.

"Billy Lynn is a fictional character, Desmond Doss was a real person, but what's funny is that Lynn's experiences belong to an 'ordinary person,' whereas Doss' heroic undertakings are 'beyond belief," Xu Yuan, a columnist, posted on WeChat.

"The film Billy Lynn cares about the feelings of an ordinary person who joins the army and fights on the front lines, while Hacksaw Ridge tells how a superman and saint accomplishes a miracle." 

A matter of faith

Discussing why Hacksaw Ridge is a Gibson work and why Lee would never be able to produce such a film, Xu wrote that "basically, Gibson is an enthusiastic Catholic while Lee has no religious faith. The former believes in the savior, praises nobility, sacrifice and miracles yet the latter cares only about personal gain and loss in the secular world, about humanity rather than divinity."

Just like how a film reflects the beliefs of its director, whether a film's protagonist can trigger sympathy from audiences depends on the beliefs of the audience. In this regard, Doss' pacifist mind-set is respected but not very well approved of in the mainland.

"You have to first protect yourself before you can save others," Chen Mo, 35, told the Global Times on Monday. "Doss is admirable, but I disagree with him."

"Try to imagine it. If no one carried a gun who would protect the homeland? It would be impossible for everyone to be a medic! Desmond Doss' beliefs are not purely Christian but a heresy of the Seventh-day Adventists," Hua Guan, a male moviegoer, commented on Sina Weibo. 

These two are not alone in their opinions in China. This type of thinking can be reflected in many domestic war films and TV dramas.

Many domestic war productions feature Buddhist characters such as monks or nuns who also strictly believe in the concept of not taking a life. Yet, all these stories head to a similar end in which these characters must violate this core precept to protect themselves or others.

While these stories don't necessarily reflect actual history, they certainly reflect the mainstream beliefs of many Chinese today.

Level of violence

Due to the large amount of violent scenes and the way they are presented, Hacksaw Ridge has become the first film in the mainland to be "rated" - the film's producer has stated that children under 12 should be accompanied by their parents when seeing the film. Although this suggestion holds no official weight, many in China are viewing it as a transitional step toward an official rating system.

The violence on display in the film also has many moviegoers wondering how it managed to get the approval of the State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film, Television as these types of foreign films are often heavily edited when they come to mainland screens. 

Back in 2013, an edited version of Quentin Tarantino's Django Unchained was approved for mainland cinemas, but after it was shown in theaters, orders came down from on high that additional violent scenes needed to be cut. At the beginning of this year, the news that violent comic book film Deadpool would not be shown in the mainland came as no surprise to most moviegoers in the country.

Many netizens have joked that leniency toward Hacksaw Ridge might be due to the fact that it depicts a war against Japanese aggression during WWII.

Ye agrees that authorities' attitude toward violence is vague.

"Violence in films, especially in blockbusters, always has a peculiar existence… there is no official standard on what degree of violence is acceptable," Ye said.

"For instance, Feng Xiaogang's The Banquet (2006) was a bit violent and the recent Drug War (2012) and Django Unchained both contained violent scenes that reached R-rating levels, yet they still were screened in the mainland."

Newspaper headline: Fighting the good fight

Posted in: FILM

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