In the battle for cultural supremacy, the Chinese film industry has released their counterpoint to the American blockbuster Top Gun: Maverick. The May 2023 release of Born to Fly, about People’s Liberation Army Air Force test pilots risking their lives to develop a Chinese next-generation stealth fighter jet, aims to do for the Chinese air force what Top Gun did for the American’s in the 1980s.
Born to Fly is not a good movie by any standard. It is dull, poorly written, and the action when it is there is unremarkable. However, it does possibly reveal how the Chinese government and military perceive their standing in international affairs.
The film begins with an action set piece where American-accented and English-speaking fighter pilots fly over the South China Sea, causing damage to a Chinese oil rig and turmoil to some fishermen. The rueful pilots arrogantly declare, “We will go whenever we want” in response to Chinese pilots ordering them to leave “Chinese territory”. In this movie, China is being bullied by developed nations, and they need to create their own high-tech fighter jets in order to compete and defend their “territory”. The air force commanders make it plain that unlike developed nations, they have to build these jets on their own. China is beset by enemies on all sides, and needs to defend itself through technological innovation and personal sacrifice.
One should note that despite The Economist reporting Born to Fly as a box office hit, it is not doing that well with Chinese audiences. While earning a respectable US$125.2 million, it is heavily dwarfed by other Chinese blockbusters such as Full River Red at US$673.5 million and The Wandering Earth Part 2 at US$604.4 million. In recent years, similar nationalist films have also made bank, with The Eight Hundred (2020) grossing US$472.6 million and My People, My Homeland (2021) making US$433.2 million.
On the Chinese film review site Douban, Born to Fly has a modest 6.6 stars out of ten. Despite claims by the Chinese Communist Party’s tabloid Global Times that the film “may even become a new benchmark” for flyboy action films, it is likely to rank as a minor entry in the canon of Chinese nationalist cinema.
This is important to recognise as it demonstrates that the film and its particular themes are not resonating with Chinese movie-goers. It says something that test pilots sacrificing their lives for better fighter jets does not have the same reach as the more humanistic themes of My People, My Homeland or the universalist ideals of The Wandering Earth Part 2. It could also just be that Chinese audiences are only fine to handle propaganda if it is not boring dreck. To create a compelling myth, you first need a compelling story.