Dante Lam, a Hong Kong action icon, is one of many to have begun looking North, tempted by the bigger budgets and audience potential of the Mainland. Following 2016’s Operation Mekong, Lam is back on manoeuvres with a second in what may develop into a series, Operation Red Sea (红海行动, Hónghǎi Xíngdòng). Red Sea is not connected to Mekong in terms of narrative and only features a cameo by the earlier film’s star, Zhang Hanyu, who remains firmly ensconced on the bridge of the all powerful Chinese warship while an elite troop of special forces handles the rapidly deteriorating situation on the ground, but it is once again “inspired” by a true story and perfectly positioned to show the Chinese security services in a more than favourable light.
The action begins in 2015 when the Chinese navy wades in to defend a merchant ship attacked by Somali pirates, managing to apprehend the “bad guys” with a minimum of bloodshed before they escape Chinese waters. Having suffered a casualty, the squad are then dispatched to rescue Chinese citizens caught up in an Middle Eastern coup. Their mission is helped and hindered by intrepid Chinese-French journalist, Xia Nan (Hai Qing), who has discovered evidence that a dodgy “businessman” caught up in the attack is in possession of a consignment of “yellowcake” along with a deadly dirty bomb formula which he plans to sell on to the terrorists currently waging war on the city.
Though Operation Red Sea is, perhaps, no more jingoistic than any British or American war film, its focus is more definitively centred on home concerns than an attempt to police the world. The Chinese military exists to defend Chinese citizens, even if those citizens are increasingly scattered throughout an unstable world. This presents a point of conflict between idealistic, and occasionally reckless, journalist Xia Nan whose mission is to stop the terrorists and rescue her friends, and the soldiers whose primary mission is to evacuate Chinese citizens though they hope to be able to provide assistance to citizens of other nations too if their mission parameters allow.
The Jiaolong, elite Chinese special forces, are indeed an impressive fighting force who proceed with military precision but are not without compassion. Informed by a local soldier that the terrorists often force civilians to become suicide bombers, the team’s bomb disposal officer puts himself at great risk to defuse a device and free a man destined to become a car bomb, rather than simply neutralising the threat. Protecting Chinese in peril is the official goal, but on a human level the soldiers are overcome with sorrow and anger for the local population, lamenting that they may have saved some lives but many have lost their homes and they will simply leave them behind to deal with the situation alone when they succeed in their mission of evacuating stranded Chinese diplomatic personnel.
Despite the overtly propagandistic elements which paint the Chinese military as a force for good, fighting bravely for their countrymen overseas, the landscape of war Lam paints is a hellish one full of blood, guts, and scattered body parts. Much of the film plays as a two hour recruiting video for the Chinese navy – it’s almost a surprise there aren’t people waiting with clipboards outside the theatre, but it’s difficult to believe anyone would be in a big hurry to sign up after witnessing the pure human carnage of a foreign battlefield and the very real threats the soldiers subject themselves to all while stoically pursuing their mission, committed to the protection of their nation and people.
Nevertheless Lam’s spectacle is impressive and action choreography unsurpassed. Working on a huge scale with everything from snipers to tank battles, Lam keeps the tension high as the team attempt to adapt to a situation which is rapidly deteriorating leaving them all but stranded behind enemy lines where each and every one of them faces a very real threat of death or serious injury. Despite an overuse of CGI slow motion bullet vision, Operation Red Sea largely earns its bombast with relentless fury, leaving its propaganda aims to dangle the background until the final coda which seeks to remind us that China rules the waves and will protect its citizens and territory wherever they may be.
Currently on limited release in UK cinemas courtesy of China Lion.
Original trailer (English subtitles)