A pair of Chinese diplomats find themselves the last hope of stranded construction workers when civil war erupts in a middle-eastern nation in Rao Xiaozhi’s visually impressive action drama, Home Coming (万里归途, Wànlǐ Guītú). A “Main Melody” National Day release, the film is less heavy on jingoistic patriotism than might be expected if slotting neatly into the recent trend of celebrating various branches of officialdom, this time foreign service consular staff, but nevertheless leans into the recurrent “just stay in China” message of government-backed big budget cinema in insisting that nowhere is the Chinese citizen safe other than at “home”. 

According the closing titles inspired by a series of real life events, the film opens in the fictional nation of Numia which is currently experiencing a period of instability with widespread protests against the government. As tensions quickly rise amid a full-scale uprising led by rebel warlords, consular staff are tasked with evacuating Chinese citizens. Jaded consular attaché Zong (Zhang Yi) has a heavily pregnant wife at home, but gives up his seat on the last plane out to a “Taiwanese compatriot” in what can only be read as a less than subtle advocation for a One China philosophy. Booked on the next boat out, Zong nevertheless ends up staying behind to help rescue a contingent of construction workers who are unable to cross the border as they have lost their documentation and require consular assistance to secure exist visas to a neighbouring nation. 

The message of the film might in some ways seem confusing. The by now familiar inclusion of stock footage featuring Chinese citizens overjoyed to arrive home thanks to the assistance of the consular officials emphasises that the Chinese government will always be committed to protecting the interests and safety of Chinese citizens abroad, but it’s also clear that the safest thing of all is not to leave or else to return home as quickly as possible. “Let’s go home” becomes a recurring motif as the construction workers and diplomats will themselves forward fuelled by hometown memories and a desire to see their families as much as simply to survive. Then again, there is also a subtle defence of the role of Chinese corporations overseas. An elderly driver from the local area makes a point of defending his friends and employers to a warlord as he points a gun at his head, reminding him that the Chinese do them a service by building railways and hospitals though it seems this corporate intrusion is one of the things the warlord is rising up against.

No information is really given as to why there is animosity towards the ruling regime, but the film nevertheless goes out of its way critique dissent by suggesting that it is the rebels who are in the wrong. Bodies are frequently seen hanging from billboards and bridges, and rebel leader Mufta tortures and pillages while playing sadistic games with captives. A secondary plot strand seems to suggest that a good leader must sometimes mislead those around them for their own good. Zong finds himself in conflict with his young and naive partner Lang who thinks they should be honest and admit that even if they make it to the next town there may be no one waiting for them while Zong knows that if they tell the construction workers that they’ll never reach it anyway in which case there’s nothing else to do but stay still and die. Zong is proved right, implying that Lang’s problem was that he had insufficient faith in China to protect them (which they can largely because of their massive satellite surveillance network) and endangered the lives of others because of it. But then Mufta also makes a strategic error in a bit of showmanship that effectively unmasks him in front of his men as a duplicitous coward rather than the grizzled revolutionary they thought they were following. 

In any case the closing news reports emphasise the rescue’s value in demonstrating that China is a strong and reliable country capable of protecting its people abroad, though the flip side of that is also seen in Zong’s insistence to the warlord that China will retaliate if any of his people are harmed. Meanwhile, Zong also seems keen to prove that China is a more inclusive place than many others, offering to take their driver back with them if he wanted to come. When the rebels finally concede the Chinese can leave, they refuse permission for an orphaned local girl who had been adopted by a Chinese couple but Zong refuses to leave without her insisting that as she has been adopted she is now incontrovertibly Chinese and he will protect her too. Rao shoots with a gritty roving camera drawing inspiration from the paranoid thrillers of the 1970s along with similarly themed contemporary pictures such as Korea’s Escape From Mogadishu and Hollywood’s Argo, while making the most of incredibly high production values with a series of explosive action sequences but does his best to mitigate the jingoistic undertones through his uncertain, battle weary hero even if ending on a slightly ironic note with an unexpected, post-credits appearance from a National Day movie icon.

international trailer (English / Simplified Chinese subtitles)

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