Record-breaking Chinese action film “Wolf Warrior 2” has changed the course of many company and individual careers — none more so than of its female lead Celina Jade, who turns out to be the film’s biggest champion.
While director Wu Jing’s 2015 “Wolf Warrior” was a big hit, making 545 million yuan ($82.4 million), little was expected of the sequel that was released in July 2017. The war/action film genre has been over-exploited in China, and the retread had little word of mouth.
While “WW2” benefited from a release date at the beginning of the summer blackout period in which only Chinese-language pictures can get a wide release, it was going head to head against Andrew Lau’s “The Founding of an Army.” “Army” is the third in a series of big-budget, new era Chinese propaganda movies that employ dozens of stars and get the full backing of the government machine.
Yet “WW2” was a phenomenon from the moment it was released. Not only did it beat “Army” from the outset, its numbers went up in the second week as word-of-mouth caught up with its stirringly patriotic themes — an ex-Chinese special forces officer taking on Western terrorists in Africa — and its onscreen qualities.
Patriotism aside, Chinese audiences loved the non-stop action, feeling they are getting good value for their money, in a fashion similar to Hollywood’s effects-driven fantasies. Repeat viewing quickly began to kick in, lifting the total far beyond the $120 million provided as a guarantee by distributors to the producers.
As the film’s box office hit half a billion dollars, approaching Stephen Chow’s “The Mermaid” to become the all-time biggest movie released in China, it lifted the share price of many companies involved, including co-distributors Jingxi Entertainment and Jetsen Technology. Several Jingxi executives understandably sold shares and took profits, only to see the phenomenon continue through the summer, finally hitting $858 million at the B.O.
One person not selling out is Jade (real name Celina Horan), a Hong Kong-based model, singer and martial artist, whose acting career started with another Wu film, “Legendary Assassin,” 10 years earlier. Her career transformation could hardly have come at a better time.
“Everyone in the U.S. wants to tap into the Chinese market, and when they look to cast a Chinese actress they look for the ones with the top box office,” she says. “For a long time, I had no box office numbers. Casting decisions came down to that on a lot of films. Now I have the numbers. My acting career exists because of Wu Jing. I was a singer, signed to Gold Typhoon, a subsidiary of EMI. [When auditioning for “Legendary Assassin”] I said to Wu Jing that I could fight; I never said I could act.”
Wu’s belief in her at that stage paid off, albeit slowly, as most of her acting roles since have been in Western films. “Being Eurasian is conflicting, confusing. There’s an identity problem. In the U.S. people see me as fully Chinese, and in the past many Chinese saw me as Western.”
Wu tried to hire Jade for “Wolf Warrior” but she was unavailable, then shooting a recurring role in the CW series “Arrow.” “I was lucky, had I been in the first one, I would not have been the lead in the second,” Jade jokes. For “WW2” Wu called her up and asked her to get on a plane the same day.
Jade has proved a perceptive analyst into how and why this film jumped so far beyond its genre expectations. She says it began with Wu’s ambition to mix Western and local crews to deliver a Chinese film qualitatively better than audiences are used to.
“Wu Jing is very open-minded,” Jade says. “Our action team was led by Sam Hargrave, who, in turn, is a very open-minded American. That really mattered. On some scenes, everyone had a view as to how it should be shot. I’d often hear Sam say: ‘You know your market, let’s do it your way.’ And Wu Jing does. In any scene the emotional and cultural triggers are different when making a Chinese movie.
“‘WW2’ is a violent film. But it is also about friendship. War is awful, but we need to help each other out. There’s a scene where the helicopter is coming to rescue people. The Chinese factory owner says that Africans and Chinese should be separated and that the Chinese should get on board first. But in the movie people are intermarried, they’ve been living there for ages. You can’t judge people by skin color. The hero says: ‘No, women and children first, I’ll take the men.’ For a Chinese movie that is awesome.”
That’s a message that mixed-race Jade was happy to convey, and it is a million miles from the formulaic tropes of “Founding of an Army.”