How Chinese People View the American Movie“Civil War”

The film 'Civil War' has been released for 6 days in mainland China, attracting 480,000 viewers and generating a box office revenue exceeding 2.8 million USD.

June 14, 2024
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Even before its premiere in mainland China on June 7th, the movie “Civil War” was already a topic of discussion on Chinese social media, especially regarding the scene where American militia kill a journalist from Hong Kong, China.

Produced by the American company A24 and directed by the renowned Alex Garland, the film intentionally leaves the cause of the civil war ambiguous, starting with the presumption that a nationwide conflict is on the horizon for America. The story follows four journalists who, in their quest for breaking news, travel to the White House to interview the President. Along their journey, they witness massacres, gunfights, and the deaths of their colleagues. They pass through tranquil towns before eventually arrive at Washington, D.C. In the final moments of the movie, the two surviving journalists ask the President one last question, followed by the president’s assassination, bringing the film to a close.

As of the time of publication by The China Academy, the film has received a rating of 6.4 out of 10 on the Chinese movie community site Douban, with over 41,932 reviews.

The film ‘Civil War’ has a rating of 6.4 on Douban.

In the context of ongoing conflicts within and outside the United States, how do Chinese viewers, who have grown up alongside China’s rise, perceive “Civil War”? We have selected representative comments to provide insight.

Identity Crisis in the Civil War

One of the most revealing scenes for Chinese audiences in the film occurs when the group of journalists encounters local militia. Upon being asked where the Chinese journalist is from and receiving the reply “Hong Kong,” the militia member exclaims, “Oh, China,” and then pulls the trigger, killing the journalist.

Chinese netizens commented:

@一只出格君 (Upvotes: 1840): “Thinking pessimistically: A Chinese person was shot dead by soldiers on the spot. Thinking optimistically: The U.S. recognizes Hong Kong as part of China.”

@传音效 (Upvotes: 116): “Many seem fail to grasp that ‘nationality’ is an internal consensus formed by external recognition… A yellow-skinned person within the Chinese cultural sphere is seen as Chinese by outsiders, regardless of their political views.”

@Aclockworkchen (Upvotes: 107): “When Plemons says, ‘What kind of American are you?’ it truly is the moment of the year.”

@Aclockworkchen’s view is echoed by Mr. Shao Shanbo, a former member of the Commission on Strategic Development in Hong Kong, who describes the scene as “quite enlightening in understanding the challenges Hong Kong is facing.”

In his movie review published in Hongkong’s mainstream newspaper, Shao commented: “Right before this scene, another American journalist is also killed for coming from a politically incorrect place (northern Florida). One of the journalists pleads with the militia, ‘We are all Americans,’ to which the militia replies, ‘What kind of Americans?’.

This scene is arguably the most shocking and unsettling part of the film. It most effectively reflects the underlying reason for the ‘Civil War’ in the U.S.: the severe political fragmentation caused by identity divisions within American society.”

Does Civil War Need a Reason

Stills from the film “Civil War”

Chinese audiences have also shared their thoughts on the director’s deliberate omission of the reasons behind the civil war in the film:

@nakedgun (Upvotes: 529): “Does the cause of war necessarily have to be explored? Just like the brief dialogues with both warring sides in the film, conflicts are often triggered by unconscious violence, discrimination, deep-seated prejudices, and extreme left or right stances. The absurdity of war is thus continuously replayed throughout history.”

@Xieirse (Upvotes: 164): “The movie highlights an important point: don’t just watch without reflection. Everyone, like the journalist Jess, keeps watching unconsciously, continuously accepting what is assigned for them to watch, and participates in producing more material to be watched without reflection. To be removed from reality and placed as onlookers, people ultimately lose the ability to truly engage in public life and neglect their responsibility to take action.”

Mr. Shao Shanbo, mentioned earlier, also noted:
“Whether it’s the ‘civil war’ in America or the anti-extradition bill protests that escalated into street riots in Hong Kong in 2019, a significant portion of society—possibly even the majority—may have their own opinions on these events but do not necessarily consider them their own problems. This phenomenon is frightening, yet it represents the harsh reality. For modern society, regardless of the system, but especially for Western liberal democracies, it poses a significant irony and challenge.

The journalists pass through a town unaffected by the war, where residents walk their dogs, jog, and clothing stores remain open

Most Americans remain mere spectators or commentators on what happens in Gaza. In modern society, public participation in public affairs has largely been reduced to the act of voting once every four years, and even then, voter turnout in the U.S. continues to decline, nearing the 50% threshold. Those in mainland China who still advocate for introducing Western liberal democracy should watch this film and reflect deeply on the profound issues it presents.”

Should the Media Be Indifferent

In the film, the group of journalists experiences a range of emotions—from initial excitement to eventual breakdown, and then to a calm acceptance of their colleagues’ deaths. The climactic scene, where a male journalist asks the president his final words before his execution, highlights this tension. The president’s pitiful plea, “Don’t let them kill me,” is met with the journalist’s cold statement, ” Yeah,that will do.”

journalist asks the president his final words before his execution

This portrayal of journalists’ calmness—or “indifference”—sparked a lively discussion among Chinese viewers, presented as follows:

@Ciciaego (Upvotes:129) “This reminds me of two things: Photography is both beautiful and cruel; journalists are always (and should be) in a neutral position.”

@Evarnold (Upvotes:414) “The long-focus lens in the hands of journalists is repeatedly metaphorically compared to a sniper’s high-power scope, as if it grants power.…… However, what journalists hold are not guns, and they cannot have guns. Thus, journalists’ safety relies on a fragile consensus—whether the other side recognizes your special status as a journalist. The film shows both the extraordinary instances where warring parties refrain from attacking and even protect journalists, and the extremely dangerous situations where some people treat journalists as ordinary targets, killing them at will.”

Criticisms of the Romanticization of War

While the movie contains many intriguing scenes, its depiction of war remains lamentably idealized.

The Chinese political commentator @马前卒 (Ma Qianzu) with over 3 million followers on the Chinese internet, shatters the rosy picture the movie presents in an exclusive interview with The China Academy:

“American screenwriters and directors simply cannot imagine how a highly developed industrial society would enter a state of war. Every urban battle scene is set against a brightly lit city, and even in the suburban area where the interview team spends their first night, machine-gun fire is juxtaposed with street lamps.

The wartime highways in America depicted in the movie.

I can only say that Americans have been too well-protected over the past 100 years.

(Click the link to access the full article:

…The screenwriters completely fail to grasp the extent of the damage a population of three hundred million, living in a highly developed industrial society, can inflict on the world and themselves when they begin to unleash their destructive potential.

…However, such a movie still holds significance. It indicates that some Americans know what they know, but also know what they don’t know.

Following the theme of Civil War, the movie juxtaposes peaceful life with chaos, indicating that Americans are aware that their everyday reality harbors severe crises that could fracture their society in unimaginable ways.

By ignoring the political causes of civil war and focusing solely on the brutality of war through their limited imagination, the filmmakers demonstrate their awareness of their ignorance and deep confusion about the roots of the crisis.

The central character in the movie is a young girl who temporarily joins the interview team. An antagonist gunman says, ‘She’s a true American,’ which reflects what the production team wants to convey. The production team aim to showcase America’s brewing crisis to young Americans and share their confusion with the younger generation.

Jess is the youngest journalist in the main group, and two veteran journalists died saving her.

Viewed from the perspective of ordinary Americans or that young girl, the ending can be interpreted in optimistic and pessimistic ways. From a pessimistic standpoint, America’s previous generation has left behind a society that appears materially prosperous on the surface, yet they failed to establish problem-solving frameworks for later generations to cope with emerging challenges. Conversely, from an optimistic angle, the previous generation demonstrated the determination to sacrifice themselves in order to remind young people to ‘diagnose’ societal problems.”

Finally, quoting the comment from Chinese netizen @同志亦凡人中文站, whose comment garnered 402 Upvotes:

“This is an America of division and civil war, where everyone owns guns, where the law of the jungle dictates, where reality is evaded, where being identified as Chinese means being shot, where the Fourth Estate remains sacred until the very end… Such a movie is not anti-American but anti-American exceptionalism. It simply simulates in America what America has concocted in Libya, the ‘Arab Spring,’ and a ludicrous and shocking US version of a wasteland is manifested. A true modern American revelation!”

Let’s hope that this not only serves as a revelation for America, and that it transcends beyond the level of mere revelation.

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