New Chinese period action film looks to take on ‘Pirates of the Caribbean’ with homegrown hero

By Wei Xi Source:Global Times Published: 2017/5/23 19:23:39

Promotional material for God of War Photo: IC

The battle for the Chinese film market is starting to pick up as the summer season approaches.

Hollywood blockbusters have dominated cinemas since the end of the Spring Festival holidays in late January and early February and Indian film Dangal has recently risen to the top spot at the Chinese mainland box office. Now, Chinese filmmakers are looking to win back their home market with a homegrown hero in period action film God of War.

The film tells the story of Qi Jiguang, a real life Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) general who defended China's coastal regions against marauding pirates, or wokou in Chinese. The choice of story is extremely fitting considering that the film releases this Saturday, a day after Hollywood action adventure film Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales debuts in the Chinese mainland.

"It's a film about beating pirates," Hong Kong director Gordon Chan said Monday at a press conference for the film. "Qi's 3,000-man army did not run away when faced with 20,000 pirates back then, so neither will we today." 

Different views

Qi is famous in China for his battles against wokou, which translates to "Japanese pirates." It is for this reason that many in China have viewed Qi as a nation hero who defended his country against foreign invaders.

In recent years, however, there have been an increasing number of historians who have begun questioning this outlook. They point out that wokou were actually comprised of many different ethnic groups, including Chinese, and were not just the Japanese bandits as has been taught in schools for years. With this in mind, many argue that Qi shouldn't be regarded as a national hero.

A fan for Qi, Chan said that he wanted to use the film as an opportunity to provide a better understanding of Qi.

Chan has studied Qi for about a decade now. This research includes two visits to Hirado, a city in Japan which was a major launching point for pirates.

"There are many studies on Qi in Japan and the Japanese admire him as a great hero as well." Chan told the Global Times in an exclusive interview on Monday.

He explained that it is significant that the film opens and closes with a Japanese character praising Qi.

The director noted that while a large percentage of wokou were Chinese, his research shows that they were still under the command of and supported by a Japanese lord in Hirado.  

According to The Cambridge History of China, pirates raids "were carried out by groups under different leaders who fought among themselves as much as they did against local militias."

While these pirates "were often comprised of common people who had been pressed into a life of outlawry for various reasons," they received support from merchants and military authorities from China, as well as were backed by the Japanese.

Creating opportunities

During a time when Hollywood superhero films are gaining an increasing number of fans in China, the studio behind God of War hopes to build the ancient general into a national hero for modern Chinese audiences.

When it comes to this, Chan thinks Qi and other historical figures have an advantage that Hollywood superheroes lack.

"Unlike the stories of Captain America, the lives of Chinese heroes like Qi are based on facts and reality, which makes them more relatable. They are real superheroes," Chan said. 

While Chan is impressed with the financial success of Hollywood blockbusters, he still doesn't feel they are very good films artistically.

"They do not have much cultural significance… I do not want to degrade Hollywood, but as a filmmaker, I do not think Hollywood films are the best films. I prefer European films or films like the recent Indian film Dangal," Chan said. 

He also noted that the popularity of Dangal, a film based on a true story of a father teaching his daughters to become professional wrestlers, in the Chinese market shows that Chinese audiences crave more than CGI-filled Hollywood blockbusters.

"We should create opportunities for good films to reach the audience," Chan said. "We are now gradually driving the intellectuals away from theaters, but these people are always worth winning back." 

"I was fighting against Hollywood back in Hong Kong years ago and I was not beaten. Now I will continue to fight in the mainland," Chan remarked.

Heading overseas

While God of War is currently only slated for release in the Chinese mainland, as an action film, it is highly likely to head overseas like many other Chinese period action films such as Zhang Yimou's Hero and Wong Kar-wai's The Grandmaster.

Commercial hopes aside, there may be another reason why the film is sure to hit foreign markets. A mainstream film about a Chinese hero bravely defending his homeland is exactly the sort of movie the Chinese government would love to let the world see. Other examples include 2016's Railroad Tigers, directed by Ding Sheng and starring Jackie Chan, as well as Wilson Yip's Ip Man series starring Donnie Yen.

It should be noted that God of War was produced with support from the central government.
Newspaper headline: ‘God of War'

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