Source: The China Project (11/11/22)
‘Home Coming’ and the evolution of the Chinese patriotic blockbuster
Rao Xiaozhi’s evacuation drama is a blend of Party discourse with popular entertainment, targeted at overseas Chinese.
By Amarsanaa Battulga
Among the patriotic tentpoles that have now become a staple of the Chinese film industry, there has emerged a certain sub-genre in recent years: the evacuation blockbuster. This includes bombastic action titles such as Wolf Warrior 2 and Operation Red Sea, whose storylines are inspired by the real-life evacuation of Chinese citizens from civil war-beset foreign countries.
The latest addition to this list, Home Coming, offers a slightly different take on this formula. Its protagonists are not elite special forces, but unarmed diplomats, and its politics are relatively subtler and targeted at a special group: overseas Chinese.
The story of the film is said to be loosely based on the evacuation of more than 30,000 Chinese nationals at the start of the Libyan Crisis in 2011. Although the title hit cinemas in China on the eve of the National Day holiday in October — a coveted occasion that guarantees a large box office — its revenue was more lackluster than expected. It still raked in $225 million, but the tally pales in comparison to the whopping $902 million of The Battle at Lake Changjin, which was released during same time last year.
Since then, Home Coming has received limited releases in North America, the UK, Australia, New Zealand, Singapore, and a dozen other countries, targeting “cities with a large overseas Chinese population.” The film, whose Chinese title — 万里归途 wànlǐ guītú — means “a long journey home,” depicts China’s diplomats leading their citizens, on foot, through the deserts of a fictional foreign country.
In cinematic and ideological terms, director Ráo Xiǎozhì 饶晓志 proves he’s a force to be reckoned with in blending the Chinese Communist Party’s voice with mainstream entertainment. But Home Coming, the poster of which reads “The motherland will not abandon any compatriots,” feels tone deaf, probably especially to its target audience of overseas Chinese, many of whom quite literally have not been able to come home during the COVID-19 pandemic. Restrictions are only now being eased after nearly three years.
The political thriller is essentially the country’s version of last year’s South Korean sensation Escape from Mogadishu, but on a larger scale. The story is set in 2015 in the fictional republic of Numia, as the opening faux historical footage and text crawl explain. Having completed their mission to evacuate a small group of Chinese nationals stuck in the airport, two officials — rescue expert Zong Dawei (Zhāng Yì 张译; Snipers, One Second) and his greenhand protégé Cheng Lang (Karry Wang or Wáng Jùnkǎi 王俊凯) — decide to stay in the war-torn country to aid their embassy’s efforts.
Their task is to evacuate more than 1,000 Chinese nationals to the neighboring fictional country Tulisia. But the situation is fraught: more than half of the Chinese don’t have a passport, and the chief customs officer Hassan (Yves Finkel) is unbudging. This alone could have been the whole story, but there’s more: another group of Chinese citizens, led by Baihua (Yīn Táo 殷桃), are in need of help; a rebel kidnapping somehow leads to a lethal game of Russian roulette; and in the final conflict, there’s yet another round of Russian roulette between the same characters.
If that sounds like a lot, it’s because it is. Penned by Rao’s usual writing partner Léi Zhìlong 雷志龙 and three others, Home Coming drags and repeats itself multiple times over the span of 137 minutes. The script strives to escalate tensions, from one Herculean task to another, but merely succeeds in undermining one situation after another.
China and the values it wants to showcase are front and center. Mentions of “Chinese people” easily reach a three-digit number (seriously). And the Chinese passport almost becomes a character in itself: a get-out-of-jail-free card that the main characters wave around everywhere they go, and which saves their lives again and again.
Rao raises some important and timely questions about Chinese society, but the answers eventually only serve to underscore the values of the status quo and reaffirm the country’s domestic and foreign policies. Zong and Cheng argue over whether they should be transparent with their countrymen or deceive them in order to maintain order — but the conclusion takes an expected turn. Same goes for the film’s attitude toward the rebellion in Numia. When a group of Chinese workers are kidnapped, Wadir (Omer Uzuak), a local driver for the Chinese embassy, reminds the gun-toting rebels that the Chinese are here to build hospitals and railroads for Numians.
Hassan and Wadir are the closest to fully-fledged characters in the representation of “the Other.” Meanwhile, Muffta (Ivan Jr. Maverick), the larger-than-life rebel leader, and his ruthless militia risk becoming colorful props. Zong speaks “Arabic” with — or rather, to — these locals in the same excruciating way as white characters speaking “Chinese” in Hollywood movies. More amusing is a scene in which Rao flips the script on the “Asians/Chinese all look the same” trope.
What the film lacks in story, it attempts to make up for with style and action — and partly succeeds. Perhaps the most impressive aspect of the flick is its production design. Richly textured sets by Lǐ Miǎo 李淼, who also worked on blockbuster comedies such as Dying to Survive (2018) and Moon Man (2022), grant an authentic feel to the production. Whereas the Somalia-set Escape from Mogadishu was shot in Morocco, the fictional Numia was constructed entirely in Yinchuan, a city in northwest China’s Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region. Equally impressive are the well-coordinated action scenes, enhanced by above-par CGI work: bombs go off, bullets fly around, and choppers crash down.
With its relative subtlety and lack of forced sentimentality, Home Coming proves more watchable than other less thinly-veiled propaganda blockbusters such as Wolf Warrior 2. One only wishes its politics didn’t get in the way of its potential success.
Home Coming is screening in select theaters in the U.S. and Canada from October 21.