#7: Year in Review: China’s Top Film, Show, and Game of 2017

This is issue #7 of the Magpie Digest newsletter, originally sent on 1/4/2018

Scene from Wolf Warrior 2

Happy 2018!

Magpie Digest only launched in November, so we are taking the end of the year as an opportunity to look back on 2017 and talk about the film, show, and game that dominated entertainment and shaped online conversation for the whole year.

Wolf Warrior 2 Ignites Nationalist Pride

Wolf Warrior 2 (战狼2) is basically a Chinese version of Rambo II — a hyper-patriotic action movie where a Chinese hero saves an unnamed African country from a military coup and a plague. Its nationalist message and its Hollywood-style polished action sequences made Wolf Warrior 2 not just the biggest movie of the year but China’s top-grossing domestic film of all time, smashing the previously unbreakable 5 billion RMB box office barrier and setting a new bar for what mainstream success looks like for Chinese films. There is such widespread pride in the movie that it has become China’s official submission for the 2018 Best Foreign Language Film Oscar.

An official press image for Wolf Warrior 2, taken from a dramatic scene at the end of the movie.

The first Wolf Warrior is self-contained within China: elite Chinese soldiers fight to expel malicious foreign mercenaries and traffickers from Chinese soil. This sequel, released just two years later, is instead about extending this sphere of protection internationally, situating the Chinese military (and renegade heroes) as a global peacekeeping force where Western powers have given up.

Beyond geopolitics, the rest of the movie is almost didactic in how it depicts Chinese people conducting themselves with honor abroad and receiving exaggerated respect and gratitude in return. The main character drinks Africans under the table (Moutai, of course). A Chinese embassy loudly proclaims itself a place of shelter for all. A Chinese naval officer refuses to engage in military action abroad until he receives proof of Chinese citizens being attacked.

It is not the first Chinese movie this year that felt more global in its aspirations, mirroring (and sometimes explicitly referencing) the country’s new One Belt One Road policy of economic colonialism, but it is certainly the most successful.

Watching with the danmu on, swells of patriotic sentiment covered the screen with every triumphant explosion: “Long live China,” “long live the motherland,” “I’m so proud to be Chinese.”

Although some people discovered the limits of patriotic fervor. The closing shot of Wolf Warrior 2 is a Chinese passport with a new slogan emblazoned on the back: “Chinese citizens, when you encounter danger overseas, don’t give up! Please remember, there is a strong homeland standing at your back.” At least one citizen has encountered the downside of copying the slogan onto the back of his passport: he was denied exit privileges for altering it.

“Attention! This is not a drill! The boss just sent this over! This was refused exit privileges at the border! Don’t write or draw on your passport! Don’t lose your mind after watching Wolf Warrior! It’s just a movie! Vandalized or altered passports are invalid!

The Rap of China Propels a Subculture into the Mainstream

On the small screen, 2017’s most culturally influential show was The Rap of China (中国有嘻哈, literally “China Has Hiphop”), a streaming-only reality competition show similar to South Korea’s Show Me the Money created by iQiYi (roughly a Netflix or Hulu equivalent). Though it has been criticized for its inauthentic portrayal of hiphop culture, especially among longtime rap fans, the show attracted 2.7 billion views during its 12 episode run and launched rap — and many previously underground rappers — into the mainstream.

One of the many times celebrity judge Kris Wu asks a contestant “你有 freestyle 吗?” (“Can you freestyle?”), a phrase which went viral immediately.

Underground hiphop scenes have ebbed and flowed in China for decades. The latest wave of Chinese rap is inspired by the staccato flows and streetwear fashion of global trap, Migos by way of Keith Ape, and has been steadily converting young fans with global tastes over the last few years.

When Rap of China came along, it demonstrated how thoroughly and quickly a previously niche subculture could be mainstreamed and commercialized.

Just eleven weeks after the word “freestyle” entered the Chinese public consciousness, the season finale of Rap of China attracted a record-breaking $4.5 million (USD!) ad buy from Xiaomi. This sent a shockwave through an entertainment industry already desperate to figure out the Next Big Thing, priming them to take bigger gambles on subcultures in the year to come. Though it’s unclear whether this attention will grow rap into a commercially viable genre, or whether it will fade as quickly as it came.

What is clear is the show’s unwavering focus on China. The history and traditions of hiphop are occasionally mentioned as the show introduces rap to a largely unfamiliar audience. But there is no effort in courting an outside audience or even bringing in overseas stars — the closest the show comes is MC Jin, a famed Chinese American battle rapper who competed in the show pseudonymously. In the first episode, the (ethnically Chinese) contestant Al Rocco is eliminated because “his rap is all in English, but we are in China now.” As with Wolf Warrior 2 and Arena of Valor, the success of Rap of China feels like a story about self-sufficiency.

Arena of Valor Hooks Everyone

We called PUBG the biggest game in the world back in November, but when it comes to China, 王者荣耀 (“Honor of Kings” in China but “Arena of Valor” globally, so we’ll use “AoV”) was the game that owned 2017. Tencent created AoV in 2015 to be more or less a mobile clone of the globally popular PC game League of Legends, which it also owns. The game has been steadily gaining players since its launch, but 2017 was the year it became inescapable. Its monthly player count surpassed, then more than doubled League of Legends’ (200 million to 80 million). It sat at the top of the Chinese mobile download charts for 10 months until PUBG finally unseated it in November. In December, it made its debut overseas. In the true hallmark of a hit game in China, it even had to implement hourly playing limits for young players.

Angelababy, currently the third biggest celebrity on Weibo, dressed up as Arena of Valor character Daji on a live action reality show version of the game currently airing on Tencent Video.

Arena of Valor’s cultural reach went far beyond China’s (already massive) traditional gaming cohort despite being complex and massively time-sucking. “Spraying pesticide,” a pun on the Chinese name of the game, became an easy way to socialize with friends and colleagues thanks to Tencent’s savvy social integrations — players team up with WeChat or QQ friends who are online, then share a voice chat while playing.

Though AoV is deep enough to be an eSport, this sociality gave it a cultural foothold that felt more like mahjong or Werewolf.

The ubiquity of AoV in post-’90s office culture, where it holds the cultural implications of golf among American executives, has even spurred a gray market of gaming coaches and surrogate players to help stragglers maintain face.

The universality of Arena of Valor is reflected in the demographics of the game as well. According to a Tencent report in 2017, more than half of AoV players are female, a staggering figure compared to the 30ish% that was previously the high watermark for the genre.

How to Watch and Play:

  • Wolf Warrior 2: You can watch the trailer and pay to stream the movie with English subtitles on both YouTube and Amazon. The first Wolf Warrior is on Netflix, so we suspect the second one will eventually be available there as well.
  • Rap of China — You can find unauthorized (but very good) fan-subs of the show if you search “Rap of China English subs.” If that’s too much work, just watch this compilation of Kris Wu failing contestants or these music videos by the biggest breakout stars of the show.
  • Arena of Valor — Currently available (with many localizations) on both iOS and Android app stores, and will be released on the Nintendo Switch sometime next year.

Magpie Digest is a service offered by Magpie Kingdom, a project by Christina Xu, Tricia Wang, and Pheona Chen to help busy people stay attuned to China’s rapidly shifting conversations from abroad.

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