Those foolishly thinking that Hollywood has an exclusive license on big-budget, patriotic movies based on real-life military exploits would be well advised to check out Operation Red Sea, a brawny, sprawling and surprisingly bloody and graphic action film from screenwriter Feng Ji and director Dante Lam. Detailing an escalating series of rescue missions, the Mandarin-language film, touted in local media as China’s first modern naval film, is a highly experiential, international cinematic call-and-response to movies like Black Hawk Down, Lone Survivor and American Sniper.
Winner of the Best Picture and Best Director awards at China’s 34th annual Hundred Flowers Awards, Operation Red Sea also proved to be a commercial juggernaut in 2018, grossing an incredible $578 million in its domestic run, and an additional $1.5 million in other territories. That total highlights, in bold, China’s burgeoning importance when it comes to theatrical revenue, making Operation Red Sea currently the 10th highest-grossing film of 2018, one of only two non-sequel/franchise movies on the list (alongside Steven Spielberg’s Ready Player One), and the only non-American production of the bunch
Shot in part in Morocco, Lam’s movie tells the story of a Chinese Navy patrol fleet, which receives a distress call from a ship full of Chinese seamen and other passengers being terrorized by a group of Somali pirates. A highly specialized eight-person assault team from the People’s Liberation Army, led by Yang Rui (Zhang Yi), descends upon the vessel to save the day. Later, when the wildly unstable situation on a nearby peninsula (the movie is loosely inspired by events that occurred during the 2015 Yemeni Civil War, though the country is fictionalized here) gives way to evacuation orders for Chinese personnel, the aforementioned assault team takes to land to spearhead the operation. They take losses but succeed, and then turn their attention toward neutralizing a group of terrorists who have plans to weaponize yellowcake uranium and convert it into a dirty nuclear bomb.
On the one hand a whiz-bang, technically proficient cinematic exercise in populist-minded action movie excess, the 139-minute Operation Red Sea also isn’t afraid to show the horrors of war and military action, dipping into a goriness that might surprise some audiences – but also connect with viewers hungry for a slightly different-looking war movie. Lam’s last film before this, Operation Mekong, was based on a deadly 2011 attack on Chinese cargo ships. And he’s following up Operation Red Sea with another armed services action-adventure rooted in real-life events, currently shooting on location in China. Military (heroism, it turns out, translates globally.