Wolf Warrior II is this year’s biggest box office smash you’ve (probably) never heard of. The story of a retired special forces solider (played by writer/director Wu Jing) who’s drawn back into action in Africa to protect aid workers from a vicious band of western mercenaries, it’s been a massive hit in China, bringing in almost US$900 million at the box office. It’s the first and only non-Hollywood film to claim a place in the top 100 grossing films of all time, has made the most money in a single market outside the USA ever and is the clearest sign yet that China is set to be a major player in the global film market in the 21st century.
Chinese-American actress Celina Jade plays Dr Rachel Smith, a UN medic working to save the African people from a viral outbreak in the midst of a civil war. Best known in the West for her role as Shado in superhero TV series Green Arrow, she was drawn to her Wolf Warrior 2 character for one reason. “She’s a real human being!" she says. "She’s the reflection of the modern woman that I very much admire. UN doctors like Rachel exist right now and are serving humanity as we speak in war zones, in impoverished areas across the globe… Comic book superheroes are cool, but these people are real. I’m so inspired by her and others like her. It is an honour to play this character.”
Having worked with Wu Jing a decade earlier in his directorial debut, Legendary Assassin, she was very familiar with the writer/director/actor’s style of film-making. “We trained a lot for that film in martial arts, so it was easy to get back into the groove of things on set. Although that familiarity also meant he was very happy to push me to get the best of me. It is really great to work with a director like that. I love a challenge and he never settled for mediocrity. He had a clear picture in his mind of who Rachel is, so it was a beautiful process to enliven her.”
Something that was a new experience for her was filming on location in Africa. “It was incredible! We filmed in a safari and had very close encounters with wild life, filming only a few feet away from lions, giraffes, African buffalo... It was such an experience to be enveloped in nature. It makes everything else in life look so small and insignificant. It’s an experience I will never forget.”
The film’s enormous success has been something of a roller-coaster ride, both for her and the Chinese film industry. “The fact that this film is the second most watched film in a single territory after Star Wars has Hollywood studio execs’ heads spinning," Jade notes. "Everyone wants to get into the Chinese market for its sheer size, but I think the movie’s success got more people thinking about trying to support local Chinese films and stories as opposed to making Hollywood formulaic films for China.”
Wolf Warrior II wasn’t aimed at Western audiences, although there’s definitely a lot for a global audience to enjoy, especially the unusual experience of an action movie where the Westerners (notably Frank Grillo) are the bad guys. Nevertheless, Wu Jing looked to the West to give his film the polish of a Hollywood project, especially when it came to the action sequences. “We had action director Sam Hargrave lead the action team with Wu Jing. Sam did Captain America, The Hunger Games and The Avengers, and one thing I really admired about Sam and his team was their openness and respect towards the Chinese ability to know their own audience instead of forcing the American way. There were a lot of creative action sequences born out of that mutual respect and openness.”
The film is also one of nine recently nominated for the inaugural AACTA Best Asian Film Award, alongside Your Name, Last Train to Busan, Birdshot, Dangal, I Am Not Madame Bovary, Kaasav: Turtle, Pink and Our Time Will Come. For Jade, the nomination is a welcome sign of the increasing international acceptance of Chinese and Asian cinema.
“I am very excited about Wolf Warrior II’s nomination as Best Asian Film for the AACTAs," she says. "It is the Oscars/BAFTAs of Australia, after all! It is an absolute honour to be part of AACTA’s inaugural Best Asian Film Award and hats off to the Australian Academy for deciding to recognise excellence in film-making throughout the Asian region for the first time. I hope other academies will follow in their footsteps later, and I do hope to see more co-productions between China and Australia in the near future. After all, we are so close by and Australia has such great talent to share with China.”
While the success of Wolf Warrior II is a game-changer for world cinema, it’s also had a big impact on Jade's future. She’s already completed two upcoming releases, the Chinese A Sweet Life and the American action film Triple Threat, with a number of other projects in the pipeline. “I’m excited by the opportunity to be able to really pick and choose great stories and films to participate in, and using this ‘fame’ towards supporting social causes I believe in," she says. "It’s definitely opened a lot of doors for me career-wise across the Pacific. I never thought I’d become a household name in China in barely over a month.”
The AACTA Awards will take place on December 7, 2017.