Make no mistake, Sky Hunter is nothing like the cheap Cold War-era propaganda films of Red China’s past. By all accounts, the cinematographic production value of China’s latest romantic military-action drama was respectable. Released in China on September 29, Li Chen’s directorial debut had much of what a Hollywood action flick of the 2010s needed on paper: an orchestral score produced by Hans Zimmer, go-big-or-go-home effects, and romantically-involved A-list leads featured in high-definition.
“The PLAAF’s financing… is a clear indication that the Communist Party understands the need to appeal to millennials at home and to demonstrate and spread Chinese culture abroad.”
But, thanks to a laughably unrealistic plot, an absurd depiction of combat, dodgy CGI, and action scenes that were ridiculously overstuffed and partially plagiarized, Sky Hunter utterly failed to attract Chinese moviegoers and meet the expectations of its ominous stakeholder. The People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) are no doubt bitter, having written and produced the film with Communist Party approval. In the end, Sky Hunter was nothing much more than a propaganda film meant to increase domestic military recruitment, if not showcase China’s commitment to influencing entertainment and pop culture at home and abroad.
Of course, Chinese propaganda is incomplete without a display of its latest military arsenal in pristine condition. Of that, Sky Hunter delivers. Front and centre was the PLAAF’s latest and greatest multirole stealth fighter – the Chengdu J-20. In the usual communist fashion of perfected timing, the film and its promotional art shamelessly featuring the futuristic 5th generation aircraft were released just in time for the 19th National Congress of the Communist Party of China.
What Chinese officials had clearly envisioned and had aspired for was what the legendary Hollywood blockbuster Top Gun did for the US Navy in 1986. Imagine crowds of young American men being gobsmacked by the veneer appeal of sleek planes, sexy women, a ballsy and patriotic mission, topped by a soundtrack straight out of MTV. Navy recruiters would set up stands outside the theatres to accept lines of military-aged men compelled to be a part of the Navy’s suddenly glamourous appeal. As a result, Navy recruitment numbers were boosted at the height of the Reagan-era, when a 600-ship Navy was demanded by the White House. Replicating that now would have been the Communist Party’s goal, especially at a time when President Xi Jinping plans to increase China’s military might towards 2050. The target? Unmarried and impressionable young adults eligible to join the Chinese military.
Alas, the PLAAF’s CN¥200 million investment resulted in a disappointing CN¥270 million at the box office, despite the fact that it was released near China’s National Day – a period where patriotic and pro-military films usually find success. In comparison, this year’s hugely successful and much-acclaimed Wolf Warrior 2 – a Chinese action saga and perhaps a Rambo rip-off – made CN¥5.67 billion with roughly the same budget. Worst of all, for the producers, the intended impact of Sky Hunter on recruitment levels and on pop culture was hampered.
Although Sky Hunter was a missed opportunity, it demonstrates the advanced nature and ambitious direction of China’s soft power through its modernized military-entertainment complex, as more big-budget patriotic films are covertly or overtly sponsored by the Chinese government and military. The PLAAF’s financing of Sky Hunter is a clear indication that the Communist Party understands the need to appeal to millennials at home and to demonstrate and spread Chinese culture abroad. Wolf Warrior 2, with a similarly patriotic sentiment, smashed domestic records with a box-office performance rivaling top Hollywood films and garnering the attention of the West.
“[It] also evidently showcased China’s desire… to take the world by storm and punish all opposition – directly opposite of Xi Jinping’s apparently empty desire to “remain a builder of world peace.””
As well, Sky Hunter is clearly attuned to Chinese President Xi Jinping’s ambition of a more offensive, “built to fight” military with a truly global reach, as mentioned in his speech at the National Congress. The plot takes Chinese forces to one of their overseas airbases – an impossible proposition before Xi’s reign. If the superior firepower of said forces was not enough to convince you of any offensive capacity relayed in the film, perhaps watching the use of the stealthy J-20s in the pre-emptive attack scene will change your mind.
The crude and crass militaristic patriotism of Sky Hunter and Wolf Warrior 2 also evidently showcased China’s desire, or at least its government’s desire, to take the world by storm and punish all opposition – directly opposite of Xi Jinping’s apparently empty desire to “remain a builder of world peace”. Simply put, these films reveal China’s desire for hard power exhibited through the means of soft power. Sky Hunter’s opening scene featured the protagonist – a PLAAF pilot – intimidating an enemy plane by flying inverted directly above it. The stunt was not only directly lifted from Top Gun, but it also demonstrated aggressive maneuvering reminiscent of those that brought down an American P-3 reconnaissance plane in 2001. Perhaps intentionally, the P-3 also makes an appearance in the film.
The promotional art for Wolf Warrior 2 had a more direct message, displaying the protagonist – a reckless commando – making a rather indecent gesture with the middle of his five fingers along with the slogan “Anyone who offends China, no matter how remote, must be exterminated.” The success of the original film and its sequel demonstrate the popularity in mainland China of patriotism through militarism. The fact that the antagonists of the Wolf Warrior series are choicely American is a clue to exactly where this militarism should be directed towards.
As such, do not be fooled into thinking that the commercial failure of Sky Hunter necessarily means a drop in support of the nationalistic messages behind it. Sky Hunter pandered to patriots, but it was simply executed in a clumsy and ham-fisted way. The worry is what the film could have been: a highly-successful propaganda tool that not only increases and spreads neo-nationalistic and militaristic sentiment domestically and abroad, but also one that increases the military recruitment of young Chinese citizens being sold a highly deceitful version of glory in combat. Thankfully, Sky Hunter was a laughing stock of a film that anyone with a reasonable taste in cinema would rightfully avoid.
Disclaimer: Any views or opinions expressed in articles are solely those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of the NATO Association of Canada.