A patriotic film featuring fighter pilots is gaining popularity in

A patriotic film featuring fighter pilots is gaining popularity in China

One of the most successful films of the year in China is called “Born to Fly”: It is reminiscent of “Top Gun”, but the perspective is very, very different

by Guido Alberto Casanova

One of the most successful films in Chinese cinemas in recent weeks has been “Born to Fly”, an action story about Chinese air force pilots, which reminded many Western viewers and critics of the “Top Gun” series: “Born to Fly” instead of “Tom”. . Cruise is one of the most famous Chinese actors, Wang Yibo.

In China, cinema has for some time been an instrument of cultural policy for the dissemination of patriotic role models and icons. Among the major Chinese productions of recent years, there are numerous examples that are mainly historical or action films: in addition to “Born to Fly”, it is worth mentioning “The Battle of Lake Changjin”, which deals with the Chinese intervention in the Korean War against the USA. and the Wolf Warrior franchise about a Chinese special forces soldier forced to fight against western mercenaries.

“Born to Fly” is full of references to today’s China and, above all, to the image that China wants to convey of itself at home and to the world. The story follows a Chinese Air Force pilot who is assigned to an elite squadron tasked with testing Chinese Air Force jets. The protagonist-pilot strives to the maximum of his abilities and must gather the necessary data to perfect a new fighter plane in which the Chinese armed forces pin all their hopes to defend the country from a foreign power threatening the borders.

Just as 1980s US films were a hymn to Reagan-era values ​​like patriotism or the cult of strength, Born to Fly is an action film that celebrates the pride and determination of contemporary China. But also to convey the image of a country unjustly oppressed by an external enemy, technologically superior, arrogant and aggressive. The narrative arc, therefore, tells not only of the protagonist’s persistence in carrying out a mission to defend his country, but also of China’s revenge against a much more advanced and powerful enemy. The reference is clearly to the United States.

This narrative is very clear at some points in the film, where, for example, some English-speaking pilots grazing without remorse attack Chinese fishermen or some workers on an offshore oil platform (a clear reference to the disputed islands of the South China Sea). , which China often claims in violation of international law). Before fleeing from the ancient Chinese planes sent against their incursion, the English-speaking pilots arrogantly respond to radio signals asking them to leave the area under Chinese jurisdiction, saying, “We come and go as we please.”

But the focus of the story is not the conflict with what appears to be the United States in every respect. Because for most of the film, the antagonist is not the enemy planes, but the technological lag of Chinese aviation itself. The obstacle that the protagonists have to overcome is above all the backwardness of their planes compared to western ones, which makes China vulnerable. Although the mission is dictated by the aggressiveness of the foreigners, the narrative tension builds around the efforts and sacrifices made by the pilots to enable the Chinese Air Force to develop ever more advanced technology to match the enemy on an equal footing to meet .

Western critics were extremely critical of the film. The Guardian wrote a few days ago that it was merely an imitation of the “dumb patriotism” of 1980s US action films, and without the sense of humor found in Hollywood films. In fact, “Born to Fly” would be a “continuous motivational speech with a political background about foreign powers trying to contain China and violate its seas.”

In China, however, the film was received differently. Born to Fly hit theaters on Friday April 29th and received excellent ratings. The first weekend achieved a turnover of around 37 million euros and took first place in terms of turnover. The launch date was no coincidence as it coincided with the start of the May Day long bridge, which will see Chinese people travel and live normally again after a year marked by lockdowns and Covid. In the first two days, Chinese cinemas brought in around 110 million euros, marking one of the best weekends since the beginning of the year.

A study by The Economist shows that over the past decade, Chinese moviegoers have developed a preference for domestically produced films over films imported from the West. According to data from Douban (a Chinese social network for film enthusiasts), between 2010 and 2021, the share of Chinese films in the total number of social network users increased from 21% to 55%, while the share of English-language films fell from 53% to 53% 28% In recent years, fewer and fewer Hollywood films make it into the top 10 most-watched films in China, also due to censorship that limits the number of foreign films that can be placed in the Chinese market.

China’s entertainment industry and cultural policy are undergoing profound changes. Today, Chinese productions are working more and more closely with the Communist Party’s propaganda organs, and in recent years patriotic films have become a central element of China’s film season.

“Telling China’s stories well” has been one of the slogans accompanying the rise of Chinese President Xi Jinping since 2013. Xi wants to promote a new narrative of the country, its identity and its history. In the President’s view, the ideological security that guarantees the party’s survival must also come from the affirmation of its own “discursive power”, ie by the West.

These increasingly propagandistic films also enjoy great public acceptance. In 2021, “The Battle of Changjin Lake” broke the box office record in the history of Chinese cinema and aroused great interest on the Internet, especially among young people of the generation that built the People’s Republic of China between the 1940s and 1950s. Until then, drama or comedy dominated the box office.

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