Operation Red Sea (Hong hai xing dong)
Hong Kong (2018) Dir. Dante Lam
They say worse things happen at sea. I’m in no position to comment either way on the veracity of this aphorism but I would think being run over by a lorry would hurt more than getting water in your swimming goggles whilst swimming in the Med. The star of this film however can attest to which surface is more problematic – land or water?
Having seen off a group of Somali pirates, the Jiaolong Assault Team of the Chinese navy receive another mission to rescue Chinese nationals from war torn Yewaire, a North African country embroiled in a civil war. The initial evacuation runs smoothly but the Chinese consulate and foreign business employees are targeted by the rebel group Zaka.
Meanwhile, French-Chinese journalist Xia Nan (Hai Qing) arrives in Yewaire to bring shady businessman Dr William Parsons (Khalid Benchagra) to justice. As a supplier of a deadly substance called Yellowcake to terrorist groups and with a formula to make dirt bombs from it, Parsons is targeted by Zaka a rebel group after the formula.
Chinese nationalism has been a major theme in mainland and Hong Kong cinema of late, like the Wolf Warrior films – this is because a number of Hong Kong productions these days are funded by deeply patriotic mainland China. Backing Operation Red Sea is the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA), providing full military cooperation including vehicles and weapons to make this as authentic as possible. Some might scorn Lam for taking PLA money but when you look at all the toys he gets to play with, you would too!
The check list is amazing – guns, rocket launches, tanks, helicopters, speedboats, drone bombs, airplanes, parachutes, knives, grenades, loads of hi-tech gear and of course the vast battleship the soldiers call home. Lam doesn’t miss an opportunity to utilise these to maximum effect which makes some of the plotting feel a bit contrived but action films have rarely hung their hats on their credibility.
But, as the credits inform us, the story is based on real events so maybe the PLA did throw everything including the kitchen sink at the terrorists they encountered in Yemen in 2015, the true story serving as the basis of Lam’s script. Not that there is much chance of that of course so just make sure that pillar of salt is nearby when you watch this film, sit back and enjoy the mayhem.
Lam sets out his stall from the opening scene, a truly blistering affair which in most films would be the climax, as the Jiaolong rid a cargo ship of Somali pirates endangering the lives of the Chinese citizens onboard. As much as this film is a flag waving exercise, it is made abundantly clear the main objective of any mission is to protect and defend their fellow compatriots, discarding with the usual chest beating heroism of one national army saving the world, even if it means sticking their nose into another country’s business.
Also eschewed is the typical western villain, opting instead for the topical common enemy of the Arab terrorist, so evil they even force scared male civilians to drive car bombs at their opponents. The parochial thinking of the PLA might make them appear selfish but a moment of crisis involving the safety of helpless Yewaire civilians sees Xia Nan question their directive, offering an arbitrary view to the single-minded military doctrine.
Xia Nan’s backstory is built around her husband and child dying in the London 7/7 attack so she is driven by a hatred of terrorists. Learning that Parsons is in league with them only strengthens her resolve to bring him down, but getting caught up in the fighting wasn’t part of her plan. Nan is also far from the token female, she’s thrown into the fire, seeing more action than some of the soldiers do and acquits herself admirably.
Only two other woman are featured in prominent roles – Deng Mei (Huang Fenfen) an employee of Parsons captured during the exodus from the city who is a helpless pawn in the terrorists plan, and lone female soldier Tong Li (Jiang Luxia). She might be indistinguishable from her male comrades with her shaved head but she is equally as fearless and handy in battle, and a maniac driver.
Like everyone else in this film though, character development is non-existent, so be warned – just when you’ve finally recognised one of the many faces of the Jiaolong they either meet their maker or disappear whilst the focus is shifted elsewhere. This is one of those rare occasions where “they all look the same” isn’t racist, it is fact since they are all similar even before donning their army fatigues.
Most people probably won’t care though as this is all about the action and boy, does it deliver – scratch that, it OVER delivers. Make a list of similar Hollywood vehicles from the past decade, combine the carnage, explosions, body count, stunts, and firepower and they still don’t equate to the mayhem Lam throws at us. And the violence is bloody and gruesome too, not just bullets through the head but also loose fingers dangling from hands, decapitated bodies and faces blown off.
The cast list is expansive and with so many casualties and little time to figure out who is who you’ll have to forgive me for not doing the doing roll call. I did recognise Simon Lam in a brief cameo however, but I will say that everyone gives their all to their roles, and despite the political and patriotic bent of the film’s message, nobody appears to be actively trying to embody the flag waving aspect of their job.
So, is Operation Red Sea shameless propaganda? Surprisingly not as much as you might think, and certainly not as distracting as in other films, but this is easily overlooked with the parade of breathtaking, insane, kinetic action sequences of sheer escapist lunacy that are too good to miss.