In 2011, two Chinese cargo ships traveling a stretch of the Mekong River within the Golden Triangle were attacked and their 13 crew members brutally executed. It was the bloodiest killing of Chinese citizens abroad in recent memory. Amidst massive media attention and public anger, Chinese authorities blamed Naw Kham, a Burmese drug lord, for directing the massacre. Despite evidence that Thai soldiers may also have been involved and that Naw Kham had a more limited role, China’s Ministry of Public Security quickly worked with Laotian, Thai, and Burmese authorities to bring Naw Kham to justice. After an extensive manhunt, Laotian police captured Naw Kham and extradited him to China. In 2013, China executed Naw Kham by lethal injection. Footage of the execution was, in an rare move, broadcast on state television.
Now, the film Operation Mekong resurrects the media sensation that swirled around that 2011 Mekong Massacre and its aftermath. Released 30 September, it became an instant hit in China and topped box office charts. The movie presents a fictionalized China’s manhunt for Naw Kham and his associates replete with gunfights, gadgetry, and gallantry.
Operation Mekong‘s protagonist is Captain Gao Gang (Zhang Hanyu from Assembly) an anti-narcotics officer in China’s Ministry of Public Security (a.k.a. the national police). After the film’s interpretation of the Mekong Massacre occurs, Gao is assigned to head an elite unit tasked with bringing the massacre’s perpetrators (including a fictionalized Naw Kham) to justice. Helped by intelligence operative Fang Xinwu (Eddie Peng), Gao and his team of elite special ops cops (including a German shepherd) storm the Golden Triangle in search of sweet, sweet justice.
By big budget action film standards, Operation Mekong is up to par (which can’t be said for many Chinese paramilitary flicks). Like in most action movies, character development isn’t the priority; it’s “good enough”. The film provides a decent amount of suspense, building up progressively and logically to an explosive climax. Gunfights and badassery, as you might expect, are Operation Mekong‘s selling points. On this front it can compete with any Bond film — it’s got improvised ziplining, car chases, boat chases, hi-tech gadgetry, helicopter insertions, and more. The movie is quite brutal too. It’s not afraid to surprise by killing or maiming characters, and it features numerous child soldiers the drug lords employ.
The most remarkable aspect of Operation Mekong, however, is what it implies about China’s geopolitical status. China makes many militaristic movies, but most are historical. The few modern ones, like Wolf Warriors, suffer from the lack of a well-defined enemy and driving motivation for their violence. Operation Mekong signals a change. With its basis in real events, it has both a clear set of villains and a sympathy-inducing cause to fight for. These qualities allow the film to represent China’s first true, major foray into a genre dominated by American films: the foreign intervention action epic.
Near its beginning, Operation Mekong pays lip service to international cooperation by showing meetings between Chinese and Southeast Asian diplomats; these meetings lead to the formation of a transnational anti-narcotics task force. After that, though, everything’s 100% Chinese.
Captain Gao’s operators (who, while technically police, you can’t distinguish from soldiers) do whatever they damn well please outside China’s borders, including extrajudicial killings in a Thai mall filled with civilians. At times, they have to flee from local authorities and conceal their true identities. This degree of “world policing” is something I’ve only seen before from American (and occasionally British if you count James Bond) movies.
Much of Operation Mekong‘s imagery is novel to Chinese blockbusters, but completely at home in Hollywood. Captain Gao’s team has a picture-filled bulletin board of the drug lords they wish to hunt down one-by-one a la the Mossad agents in Steven Spielberg’s Munich. The team’s specially trained German shepherd feels like a shoutout to Zero Dark Thirty and the Bin Laden raid, which featured its own canine operator. Going south of the border cowboy-style to hunt narcos whilst viewing local authorities as obstacles? Sounds like Sicario.
As China becomes a stronger political, military, and economic competitor to the US, it’s logical that we’ll start to see movies that compete for a slice of the “world police” pie. What will be interesting to observe is if the differences in China’s foreign policy doctrine inspire distinctive narratives. How would a “non-hegemonic” China, as espoused in PLA Colonel Liu Mingfu’s The China Dream, play out on film? Will we see a Thin Red Line along the nine-dash line? Only time will tell, but at least today we can enjoy the action-packed Operation Mekong as a sign of things to come.
Operation Mekong (Chinese: 湄公河行动)—Dialog in Mandarin Chinese with some Thai and English. Directed by Dante Lam. First released September 2016. Running time 2hr 20min. Starring Zhang Hanyu, Eddie Peng, Chen Baoguo, and Carl Ng.