Why Is Operation Red Sea Winning the “Post-Spring-Festival Film War”?

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4:34 PM HKT, Sat February 24, 2018 3 mins read

On the first day of the Year of the Dog, China’s box office reached nearly 1.27 billion RMB ($ 200 million) in a single day. This number doubled the the New Year’s Day box office take in 2016, and represented a 60% increase in sales over the same day in 2017. According to box office tracking website maoyan.com, Monster Hunt 2 led the fierce competition with 543.1 million RMB, including 268 million RMB in pre-sales, both of which broke Chinese film industry records.

New Year’s Day box office stats

It seems that the huge promotional campaign for Monster Hunt 2 paid off, but unfortunately it didn’t last long. Over the Chinese New Year holiday week, two other films — Operation Red Sea and Detective Chinatown 2 — ranked #1 and #2, respectively, netting more than 140 million views and 5.6 billion RMB in ticket sales all together. The estimated total box office for the two films is 3.64 billion RMB and 3.53 billion RMB — both much larger than Monster Hunt 2‘s 2.37 billion RMB.

Douban reviews: Operation Red Sea (8.5); Detective Chinatown 2 (7.2); Monster Hunt 2 (5.2)

We can’t really call these two challengers dark horses. On February 11, Du Sir Film, a professional film review WeChat account, predicted that Operation Red Sea would be number one among all the films released over Chinese New Year in an article entitled Believe It Or Not, It Will Be the Champion of Spring Festival Box Office (link in Chinese).

Poster for Operation Red Sea

Operation Red Sea is loosely based on the same true story as Wolf Warrior 2, last year’s major box office hit: the evacuation of over 800 Chinese citizens and foreign nationals from the Republic of Yemen during the Yemeni Civil War in 2015. The success of Wolf Warrior 2 proved the Chinese audience’s appetite for this type of war film, and for Operation Red Sea, which is set in Morocco, the production crew went even further.

Instead of being a solo hero action movie, the plot of Operation Red Sea centers on eight Chinese Navy officers who team up as the Sea Dragon Corps, a special-ops unit that exists in real life. The fictionalized team in the film rescues Chinese citizens and hostages while battling rebel armies and terrorists in city streets, villages, and deserts. Operation Red Sea received support from the Chinese Navy and the Moroccan government, which supplied warplanes, tanks, and the Type 054A frigate (NATO codename: Jiangkai II) that facilitated the Yemen evacuation in 2015. Those hefty props, in addition to fifty types of firearms and thirty thousand (blank) bullets, give the film a realistic look.

Operation Red Sea received support from the Chinese Navy and the Moroccan government, which supplied warplanes, tanks, and the Type 054A frigate


On IMDb, user “TheBigSick” expresses his surprise:

Actually, most of the film is just above average, and the score would be like 7/10. However, the action sequences between Minute 100 and Minute 120 are incredibly brutal, realistic, bloody, traumatizing and unbearable, and are among the finest action scenes I’ve ever seen… The cinematography, film editing, sound editing, sound mixing, visual effects, action choreography, original score and production design are just speechless.

Another reason Operation Red Sea has been so highly praised as “professional” and “explosive” by many is that Dante Lam, the Hong Kong-born director of Operation Red Sea and 2016’s Operation Mekong, is himself a student of military weapons and tactics. Lam emphasized his “sense of mission” in an interview with Chinese film site Mtalk (link in Chinese):

Although the film you see is about a military operation, it is discussing people’s sense of mission at the same time. For example, the reason for Hai Qing’s role in the film as a journalist embedded in a military corps is that she represents us ordinary people, who have our own missions. Everyone is persisting and fighting for their own missions.

Operation Red Sea director Dante Lam

The film has received good reviews from industry professionals and general viewers on Weibo. Some representative samples:

“There was a line for the male bathroom after I watched Operation Red Sea.” – D-H-Xiong

“My mom is doing yoga now to calm down and go to sleep. We just watched Operation Red Sea.” – Leng Leng

“It was so exciting that I thought it had been a long time — turned out it was just half an hour. And the whole movie is full of high energy. I’ve never seen so many fireworks and explosions, even during Spring Festival.” – A Ximin

If there was a film rating system in China, Operation Red Sea would definitely get an “R” for its bloody, brutal scenes. Despite all of the stray body parts and bloody wounds (which led many fans to question how the film passed SAPPRFT censorship), sadly, a lot of parents have taken their children to watch the film. I guess it does teach people of all ages that, as writer Ma Boyong said on his Weibo:

Real war is cruel and ruthless, as shown in the film. You might like all the soldiers after watching it, but you would never like war itself — this is the responsibility of a military film. And Operation Red Sea did it.

Detective Chinatown 2

The other box office hit of the 2018 Chinese New Year holiday season was Detective Chinatown 2, a comedy about Chinese detectives solving a murder in New York’s Chinatown, which just set a record for 2D Chinese films with a box office take of 2.2 billion RMB. Both it and Operation Red Sea demonstrate that besides big advertising budgets, there are other things that filmmakers can do to attract Chinese audiences to watch domestic films. As the Chinese film market continues to expand, especially in third- and forth-tier cities, moviegoers’ tastes are becoming more varied than ever.

Cover image: Weibo

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