Zhang Yimou Crafts an Unusual Propaganda Film with ‘Snipers’

Zhang Yimou Crafts an Unusual Propaganda Film with ‘Snipers’
Photo Credit: Reuters / TPG Images

What you need to know

‘Snipers’ is an unapologetic Chinese patriotic melodrama. It’s not for everyone, but there were times that it was able to hint at a more multifaceted story.

“One for me, one for them” has a slightly different meaning for those living and working in an authoritarian state. After recent arthouse efforts Shadow 影 (2018) and One Second 一秒钟 (2020), director Zhang Yimou 张艺谋 turned in Cliff Walkers 悬崖之上 (2021) and, this Lunar New Year, Snipers 狙击手, co-directed with his daughter, Zhang Mo 张末. Both of the latter are blunt and patriotic melodramas set during war.

Every film-producing country makes this kind of fare (Top Gun: Maverick is coming soon, I hear), but unlike in Hollywood productions that like to blame the inevitable snafus on higher-ups, in this film the only mistake is made by a soldier acting on his own initiative, and the blunder is an unfixable one — no bending the rules to win the day here. Now there’s a neat contrast in ideology for you.

Written by Chen Yu 陈宇, Snipers tells the ostensibly true story of a sniper battle during the Korean War, when sharpshooter Liu “Grim Reaper” Wenwu (Zhang Yu 章宇) is targeted by the Americans — for capture, inexplicably. John (Jonathan Kos-Read, a longtime actor in the PRC under the Chinese name Cao Cao 曹操) and his company of well-equipped veteran snipers bait Liu and his scrappy yet accurate company of young snipers with the half-dead body of their friend, Liang Liang (Liu Yitie 刘奕铁). A standoff ensues, with our heroes in a trench aiming at the Americans’ fortified hilltop and making ample use of their one pair of binoculars.

Speaking of patriotic war films, this one stylistically resembles the Russian World War II tank film T-34 (2019). Both are set during a major historic war in the dead of winter, fetishize a particular kind of weapon, make much hay of tactics and countertactics, and use slo-mo bullet time for key shots fired. Snipers even features a tank in its climax.

But whereas T-34 is a sprawling five-act film spanning multiple locations, Snipers stays in one place and wraps things up before the 100-minute mark. Factoring in the melodramatic film’s propaganda goals, we find it a lean creature, fleet of foot. In fact, it uses its speed and the low expectations of its genre to gloss over key information that, when finally considered properly, creates a plot twist.

Another difference is in the visuals. Regardless of the weather, tanks are a blunt instrument. Snipers, in contrast, are best deployed hidden. This means that the snowy landscapes, shot by cinematographer Zhao Xiaoding 趙小丁, are beautiful but generally meaningless. Even in the rare overhead wide shots, both sides are wearing camouflage, and we can’t tell the bodies (dead or alive) from the rocks. Only once in the film do we see Liu calculate angles, distance, and firepower, and he does it by making chicken scratches in the snow to complement some (unfilmable) mental exertions. At least the film skips the waiting around part of sniperhood.

Curiously, I found the acting more interesting on the American side. While our heroes are alternately shouty and weepy (sometimes both at once), the Americans are by turns defensive, confident, devastated, impressed, cowardly, apoplectic, desperate, and arrogant. Predictably, that last character flaw does them in. They can be shouty too, of course; it’s a war film after all. But in general this is the opposite of how heroes and (foreign) villains are portrayed in East Asian genre films, betraying Zhang fille’s inexperience — or, perhaps, Zhang père’s lack of real interest in the project.

The English dialogue is also unusually good, thanks to Zhang Mo’s American background and English dialogue consultant Steven Thomas Boergadine. The only awkward line is when John counts four beats in the Chinese way, like a musician or dancer, rather than counting out Mississippis.

Given its goals, the film is competently crafted. But it pulls its punches in handling its narrator. Having voiceover narration is in this case a good way to get around what could’ve been some excruciating exposition about weapons, gear, and preexisting relationships. But revealing the identity of the narrator midway through deflates any remaining tension regarding the ending of this film whose genre already guarantees that its ending is almost never really in doubt.

Still, melodramatic though it may be, the shouting, weeping, and soaring violins (composed by Dong Dongdong 董冬冬) of the denouement managed to pluck some atavistic string somewhere inside me. The film has good aim; it just doesn’t always choose the right target.


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TNL Editor: Nicholas Haggerty (@thenewslensintl)

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