'Operation Red Sea' ('Honghai xingdong'): Film Review

Operation Red Sea Still - Publicity - Embed 2018
Courtesy of Well Go USA Entertainment

The homegrown military drama Operation Red Sea will compete in the fest’s main competition.

P-R-C! P-R-C!

Hong Kong director Dante Lam relocates his polished military action from the Mekong to the Middle East in the latest demonstration of heroic Chinese blockbusting.

Hong Kong director Dante Lam’s quest to transform into Asia’s Michael Bay takes another step toward completion with Operation Red Sea, a blustery, noisy, polished, jingoistic hot mess based on the real life PLA evacuation of 500 Chinese nationals from Yemen in 2015. The latest in a string of box office winners celebrating the might of the Chinese military (this was, not surprisingly, produced with support from the PLA Navy Government TV Art Central of China) has more in common with the genuinely solid actioner Wolf Warrior 2 than the inept Top Gun rip-off Sky Hunter, but without Warrior’s sense of goofy fun.

Grossing nearly $580 million — $577 million of that in China — in its spring holiday run, Operation Red Sea has preposterously and infuriatingly been selected as Hong Kong’s (!) Oscar submission for 2018. Let’s just let that sink in for a moment. Red Sea says nothing about or for the SAR, and the choice has been widely slammed as a transparent attempt to curry favor somewhere in Beijing.

Following the success of 2016’s similarly themed and “patriotic” Operation Mekong (in that case about the war on drugs), Lam heads to the fictional Middle Eastern state of Yewaire to evacuate 130 Chinese nationals and expatriate staff at Chinese companies after a coup. But first we’re introduced to the navy’s elite Jiaolong Unit 1, a special corps so badass it makes the SAS and the Mossad look like children playing G.I. Joe in the schoolyard. Captain Yang Rui (Zhang Yi, I Am Not Madame Bovary) leads the team, which includes big shot sniper Shun Gu (Huang Jingyu), spotter Li Dong (Yin Fang), demolitions expert Xu Hong (Du Jiang) and female gunner (her official title) Tong Li (Jiang Luxia).

After dispatching a bunch of Somali pirates (snarling black people with eye patches) threatening a Chinese merchant ship, Jiaolong and the Linyi, captained by Gao Yun (Zhang Hanyu, The Great Wall), head to Yewaire, where they graciously expand their mission to include rescuing non-Chinese hostages, mostly at the urging of Chinese-French journalist Nan Xia (Hai Qing). She’s in Yewaire investigating an energy company CEO moonlighting as an arms dealer sourcing yellowcake (uranium powder) for dirty bombs. He’s also under investigation for abuse of a six-year-old in case illegal arms dealing weren’t bad enough. Explosions, gunfire and many severed limbs ensue.

Operation Red Sea isn’t guilty of being poorly made: in fact it’s one of the strongest big budget action extravaganzas to come from the PRC this year. It’s helped along by Lam, who proved himself an adept action maestro with the likes of thoughtful, moody Hong Kong thrillers Beast Cops and Beast Stalker. But the siren call of bigger, louder and simply more toys has lured Lam, like so many others, to China. The difference, of course, is the prescribed message that makes Hollywood films at their most fevered look restrained. In one segment, when the hostages see the navy in the harbor, one leaps to her feet and yells, “That’s our warship!” to rousing cheers. The film ends with a proverbial “Get off my lawn” in a convoy of navy destroyers warning an interloper in Chinese territorial waters to “Please turn around immediately.”

Ironically, Lam may have killed any recruiting drives, as the action — choreographed by Lam and Jeffrey Kong and terrific when it finally kicks into high gear — is grisly: a soldier fights with half his face blown off, one attaches a tourniquet to staunch bleeding from his graphically missing arm, heads are left on the ground several meters from their bodies, it’s gruesome stuff. Lam doesn’t make war look glorious. It looks disgusting and wasteful, if only on the Chinese side. The Yewairian (?) rebels and terrorists are equally faceless; no motivations are ever given beyond boilerplate blather about “A better country,” for someone.

Operation Red Sea’s biggest flaw (propagandizing aside) is an endless, exhausting narrative that just keeps going and going. Nonetheless Lam and his (largely) Hong Kong crew turn in some stellar work: editors Choi Chi-hung and Lam Chi-hang make ludicrous set pieces click, chiefly the desert escape in tanks (that handle like Tercels) and the village siege stand out; and cinematographers Fung Yuen-man and Horace Wong do a stellar job marrying kinetics with white-knuckle tension. Will there be a third Operation? Perhaps, given the stellar returns on both. That should give Hong Kong another chance at Oscar glory too.

Production company: Film Fireworks

US distributor: Well Go USA

Cast: Zhang Yi, Huang Jingyu, Hai Qing, Du Jiang, Jiang Luxia, Wang Yutian, Yin Fang, Henry Prince Mak, Gua Jiahao, Zhang Hanyu, Wang Yanling, Wang Qiang, Huo Siyan, Cai Jie

Director: Dante Lam

Screenwriter: Feng Ji, Chen Zhuzhu, Eric Lin 

Producer: Candy Leung

Executive producer: Yu Dong, Lu Zhenhua, Tang Jing, Albert Yeung

Director of photography: Fung Yuen-man, Horace Wong

Production designer: Joel Chong Kwok-wing 

Costume designer: Hwarng Wern Ying, Miriam Chan

Editor: Choi Chi-hung, Lam Chi-hang

Music: Elliot Leung

Casting: Noureddine Aberdine, Yan Ruipeng, Li Xiaodong

World sales:Emperor Motion Pictures

In Putonghua, Arabic and English

No rating, 140 minutes