Critics should treat Dunkirk just as a movie

Global Times
Zhang Tao


The latest Hollywood blockbuster Dunkirk has generated controversy and attracted criticism for a variety of reasons. Some of the criticism is reasonable - it's disappointing as a war movie, and General Harold Alexander shouldn't be depicted as a hero. And, then there is a harsh criticism of Chinese moviegoers: "they love war films full of blood and fighting scenes."

But those who are making the comments should keep in mind there's always a danger in generalizing about a group of people, in particular a large group of people - as large as 1.3 billion.

The Chinese magazine, New Weekly, was cited by the British media as saying, "Wolf Warrior 2 depicts complete victory. Whereas Dunkirk is about a disastrous retreat, which is very different from traditional Chinese values, so it will not do very well at the Chinese box office."

I was born and grew up in China but never heard of such a Chinese value. The Long March in the 1930s by the Red Army of the Communist Party of China (CPC) is probably the most well-known military "retreat," a strategic one, which laid the solid foundation for the ultimate victory of the CPC. Few people would refuse to acknowledge the significance of that retreat. In what way is that against Chinese values?

What's close to being offensive is the claim that "they love war films full of blood and fighting scenes." The comment implies it's "they" who are with low taste and lack aesthetic judgment, not "I" who belong to people with high taste.

For almost every movie, there're people who show little interest and there are others who enjoy it. When it comes to Dunkirk, it isn't surprising if there're people who heap praise on the director, Christopher Nolan, and others who don't really relate to the drama.

I'm not a movie critic and have no intention to pretend to be one. So, is Dunkirk a success, or is it a good movie?

From a layman's point of view, I do appreciate that it offers a unique angle to scrutinize wars between countries. It vividly depicts the plight and hopelessness of the stranded soldiers who are at the mercy of the German troops.

The cruelty of war doesn't just lie in the loss of lives but also the senselessness displayed by the troops. As Dunkirk reveals, in war, it could be simply about survival instead of victory or defeat.

At one point, I thought maybe everyone should watch Dunkirk, not for how well-made it is, but to experience the horror up close and gain some sense of how frightening a war could be.

Those often bragging about "sea of fire" or "fury and fire" probably need to watch the movie the most. And of course, there're those who boast of their being "ready to fight tonight" or launch "nuclear strikes" if ordered to do so. They also should be encouraged to experience the desperation of soldiers.

But that's just a layman's opinion. Thankfully, I'm not the only one. On Douban, China's top movie rating website, a moviegoer commented that "the only reason that you advocate war is because you've never been in one."

So, to a large extent, Dunkirk is indeed worthwhile for us to watch, pause and think.

Naturally, some people have issues with the movie, like the controversial character of Harold Alexander, who is said to be responsible for the death of 60,000 Chinese soldiers during WWII in a battle in Myanmar.

Others are probably disappointed with the late release - it could have been released in the Chinese market at an earlier date if not for the unofficial domestic-movie protection months of July and August.

After all, it's not a traditional war epic similar to Hacksaw Ridge, or Saving Private Ryan, where you often have mind-blowing plots, detailed building-up of characters, and enchanting storytelling.

On quota, most of the threads praise Nolan, but there is also candid criticism of the making of the movie.

One thread reads, "Dunkirk is a great technical achievement and therefore worth the IMAX expense. But it just lacks the character substance Nolan is known to deliver."

Another one notes, "The story is quite linear, there isn't much character development. All the individual characters in the movie feel rather forgettable."

In a rather strong response carried by the Belleville News-Democrat, a local newspaper in southern Illinois, a reader wrote, "I recently watched Dunkirk, and I thought it was perhaps the worst movie I have ever seen in my life. It was so bad that I actually thought about asking for my money back. So I have to ask you: Don't you agree? What was the point of this waste of two hours of my time?"

Do the Americans only "love war films full of blood and fighting scenes," similar to their Chinese counterparts?

The newspaper's writer, Roger Schlueter, used a long article to explain how outstanding Dunkirk is and why it's a great movie. He says that Dunkirk is a great movie, as long as you understand its director's goal.

I tend to agree with him. Dunkirk is likely not what many people would expect it to be, as Nolan stressed, "It's not a war film; it's a survival story and a suspense story."

But is it fair to blame those who are let down? In a famous speech to the House of Commons, British wartime prime minister Winston Churchill praised the retreat of Dunkirk. He famously said, "We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills. We shall never surrender!"

Given the steely resolve to fight back, isn't it natural that common folks expected a great battle against the Germans instead of chaotic retreat?

Still, if I may weigh in, I'd simply tell the guy who is so frustrated that he wants his money back that it's totally fine if you don't like it. It's just a movie.

The author is a commentator on current affairs with China Radio International.


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