Dunkirk in China

[Upper rows: A work by Christopher Nolan, director of Batman: Dark Knight Rising, Inception, and Interstellar. A testimony of Nolan’s impression made in Chinese audience’s minds]

Dunkirk, directed by Christopher Nolan, has received rave reviews from critics. Based on real World War II history, Dunkirk recounted the devastating retreat of Allies forces from three separate perspectives (The Land, The Sea, The Air) in non-chronological order. With a 93 from Rotten Tomatoes and a 94 from Metascores, the movie generated a box office revenue of 1.9 million USD thus far. Peter Bradshaw of The Guardian considered Dunkirk to be “Nolan’s best movie so far,” and NPR movie critic Bob Mondello praised the movie for its “master visual storytelling on an epic scale.” However, the movie was not welcomed with the same enthusiasm in China despite a thriving, loyal Nolan fanbase.

One reason for the failing box office sales might be China’s “summer blackout” policy that postponed Hollywood release dates to protect the domestic movie industry. Due to the regulation, Dunkirk was forced to compete for ticket sales with previously released movies (including Spider-Man: Homecoming and Baby Driver) featuring comedy, sci-fi, and superheroes that more successfully met the taste of the Chinese public.

Another explanation is Dunkirk’s deviation from the themes of previous Nolan blockbusters. Indeed, it was the sci-fi and adventure element in Dark Knight Trilogy, Inception, and Interstellar that earned the director a reputation among Chinese teens and young adults. Dunkirk is different. Besides being less relatable to Chinese audiences due to the physically distant setting, the movie is based on a real wartime story and underscores death, survival, and even withdrawal from battling evil instead of exploration and adventure.

However,  for Chinese fans who delved deeper into the WWII history, a more important reason to reject Dunkirk is that General Harold Alexander, one of the British commanders involved in the miraculous deliverance, later ironically incurred heavy losses to the Chinese army when America, Britain, and China fought together against Imperial Japan in Burma. With Alexander’s sudden, irresponsible retreat to London after suffering great casualties and a commander defection, U.S. General Joseph Stilwell, the commander of Chinese expeditionary forces, had no choice but to abandon his troops and evacuate in a rescue mission ordered by General of Air Force Henry Arnold. The following disorganization caused Chiang Kai-shek, leader of the Republic of China, to lose half of his one-hundred-thousand-man army sent to Burma. It is obvious that portraying the unreliable individual as a savior is not very appealing to the radically patriotic Chinese viewers.

Nonetheless, the negative review of Nolan’s film is hardly damaging the director’s reputation. Nolan still remains one of the most prestigious movie directors in China, and the sci-fi loving fanbase in China will surely swarm to cinemas if he continues to display his creativity and talents in his future work.


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  1. Dunkirk was great ^.^
    And interesting Chinese history

  2. well thought out! I see you put a lot of thought into figuring out how Dunkirk didn’t do as well.