Calls have been made in China to boycott the British war film Dunkirk after it was subjected to a heavy bombardment from critics who said a “disastrous retreat” does not conform with “Chinese values”.
The film came under fire not only for its portrayal of an un-Chinese evacuation, but also for glorifying General Sir Harold Alexander.
Gen Alexander, who helped oversee the 1940 ‘miracle of Dunkirk’, is considered a war hero in the UK, but is despised by some in China due to a belief that he caused the death of thousands of Chinese soldiers.
Christopher Nolan’s war drama premiered in China on Friday but recorded “gloomy numbers” in its opening weekend, the Global Times newspaper said.
“The film’s tepid performance in the mainland, according to certain media outlets, has been attributed to the theme of the film – which praises an evacuation – not striking a chord with Chinese audiences,” said the newspaper, which is published by the People’s Daily, the mouthpiece of the ruling Communist Party.
During the Second World War, China’s government was forced to retreat its capital from the eastern city of Nanjing further inland to Chongqing in 1937 because of the Japanese invasion.
The government of Chiang Kai-shek, the Chinese leader, held on for eight years until 1945. Chiang famously said that he ‘traded land for time’.
New Weekly, a Chinese magazine, compared Dunkirk to Wolf Warrior 2, a patriotic, all-action movie in which the Chinese hero overcomes Western baddies via a series of explosive and dramatic action sequences.
“Wolf Warrior 2 depicts complete victory,” New Weekly said. “Whereas Dunkirk is about a disastrous retreat, which is very different from traditional Chinese values, so it will not perform very well at the box office.”
Wolf Warrior 2, which became China’s top grossing film ever over the summer, has the tagline : ‘Whoever offends China will be hunted down no matter how far away they are.’
Beijing has also been more assertive against its neighbours, becoming embroiled in territorial disputes with India on its south-western frontier, and with nations across Asia in the South China Sea and East China Sea.
Gen Alexander, one of the key figures at Dunkirk, fought with distinction in World War One, and then in most of the key Second World War theatres.
He has been criticised in China for being involved with the retreat of British, Chinese and United States troops from Burma (Myanmar) into India in 1942, which some in China say resulted in the deaths of tens of thousands of Chinese soldiers.
Among a series of posts on China’s Kuaibao news website calling for a boycott of the film was a comment which said Gen Alexander’s successes were “built on the blood and bones of the Chinese expeditionary force”.
However, British historian Rana Mitter, said people should remember how British and Chinese troops, along with the US, fought together to achieve ultimate victory.
“In 1944, these three Allied forces worked together to defeat the Japanese in Burma,” said Prof Miitter, the Director of the University of Oxford China Centre.
“This forgotten alliance should be remembered in China and the West,” he told The Telegraph.
But despite receiving a panning in some quarters, Dunkirk’s box office takings of 57 million yuan (£6.7 million) on its opening day and 76 million yuan (£9 million) on Saturday meant it was the most watched film in China over the weekend.
And there were some critics who said Wolf Warrior 2 and Dunkirk should not be compared.
“It’s a stupid idea,” well-known Chinese movie critic Tan Fei told The Telegraph.
“The reason Dunkirk will not do well at the box office in China is because Chinese people love war films full of blood and fighting scenes.”
Additional reporting by Christine Wei