China provides open-minded Western actors a refreshing career alternative to sluggish Hollywood and does not “get enough credit” for vast improvements in film production, Kevin Lee, a British actor working in China for a decade, told Breitbart News in an exclusive interview from Beijing.
Lee encouraged Americans, and Westerners generally, to give Chinese films a chance, arguing that they present much more nuance than the publicity they get overseas may suggest.
Lee has worked as British, American, and other Western characters necessary to tell Chinese stories during his time in the country, receiving airtime in increasingly high-profile blockbusters as the Chinese film industry has become a bigger player in global filmmaking. Lee most recently starred in The Battle at Lake Changjin, the highest-grossing Chinese film of all time and the number two highest grossing film of 2021 anywhere in the world, second only to the latest Spider-man movie.
Lee will also feature in the upcoming film Sharpshooter (sometimes translated as Snipers), directed by legendary Chinese filmmaker Zhang Yimou. Zhang – once a pariah over his brutal anti-communist film To Live (now banned in the country) and violations of the now-defunct “one child policy” – has become one of the Chinese Communist Party’s favorite directors, set to return to directing the Olympics Opening Ceremonies next month after receiving the honor in 2008.
Sharpshooter and Lake Changjin are both war films told from a Chinese perspective. As they are set in the Korean War, the enemies are the U.S. government; the heroes are the Chinese soldiers whose sacrifices make the existence of North Korea, arguably the most repressive regime in the world, possible today. The film depicts Mao Zedong, responsible for at least 45 million deaths, as a fatherly, thoughtful leader pained by the sacrifices of his soldiers.
Lake Changjin received significant international attention due to its box office success, which led to Westerners on both sides of the political aisle – and, notable, South Koreans – watching it and declaring it an obvious communist propaganda setpiece.
Also contributing to the perception that Lake Changjin – whose salt-of-the-earth heroes square off and defeat nefarious American “imperialism” against all odds – is government propaganda: the fact that the Chinese government funded it and enthusiastically promoted the film, even suggesting schools have a “duty” to host viewings.
“The Battle at Lake Changjin, whose box office is expected to be the largest in Chinese film history, has pushed the patriotic sentiment of people across the country to a peak,” the state-run Global Times newspaper declared in October, “amid the tense China-US competition and China’s effective control of the epidemic, Chinese film observers said.”
Those who have criticized the movie have been arrested.
Lee rejected the premise that his film is any more propaganda than any Hollywood movie in an extensive and candid conversation – that, to his credit, he initiated with Breitbart News – last week. On the contrary, he contended, the interactions between Chinese and American soldiers in the movie show mutual respect and a desire for peace that Western viewers should consider.
“I think people have just looked at the movie, you know, the movie itself in its entirety and just judged that movie just because it makes Chinese look more superior. How often do we watch – with all due respect – American movies … how often do we watch American movies that shows how superior America is?” Lee asked. “We see American flags in every single movie, is that not propaganda?”
Lee plays Colonel Allan MacLean, a real American soldier who is presumed to have died in the Chinese surprise attack on Lake Changjin, known more commonly in the West as the Chosin Reservoir. Colonel MacLean’s remains were never found, his real-life demise remaining an unknown to family and the American public. In Lake Changjin, MacLean dies at the hand of Wu Qianli, a humble Chinese volunteer soldier who raced to the front lines of the Korean War (the “War to Resist U.S. Aggression and Aid Korea”) after having just returned from the front lines of the war against Japan. Wu is played by Wu Jing, one of China’s top action movie stars. Lee described his character’s death in the film to Breitbart News as a “really integral” part of the film because Wu shows humanity to MacLean, granting him a “graceful” death rather than executing him like a faceless action movie bad guy.
“There’s actually a really integral part of the film … where I play Colonel Allan MacLean of the Polar Bears and I’m the last man standing, I try to run back into my headquarters and as I run in I get shot in the shoulder by the main star,” Lee narrated, “And I’m propped up against the table kind of bleeding out somewhat. And the star runs into the building, I think the side man … comes in and wants to kill me because he’s angry, I probably killed some of his friends in the movie.”
“And Wu Jing, the star, he grabs the gun and he kind of tosses it away somewhat and says ‘No, it’s unnecessary, you don’t need to finish him off. This is not what war is about,’” Lee explained. “And I think there was a very important message there and that message should hopefully resonate – that war is war, and we can’t stop war, but it’s not about just necessarily killing your enemy, it’s about respecting your enemy, as well, and I think that’s the message that Wu Jing wanted to convey.”
“This isn’t about Chinese beating the Americans. This is about, you know, unfortunately, we’re in a war here, and this is how it is,” Lee contended, describing it as a “beautiful message.”
Elsewhere in the film, Lee told Breitbart News, “the American characters in this war movie, actually, they were made to look very good,” despite the movie’s reputation – fueled by Chinese regime media coverage – that it is an uncomplicated glorification of communism soldiers. In a separate scene, he noted, an American general salutes dead Chinese soldiers.
“There’s a scene where they are frozen in the snow … they froze to death, and he [the actor playing the general] wanted to salute those soldiers to show somewhat respect to the fallen, and that’s an American wanting to do that, and thats a great message to send,” Lee said. He rejected the contention that the salute was a sign of submission to a superior China and claimed the actor added the flourish to the film – the screenplay did not call for a salute.
“That was an American soldier, an actual American playing an American general, who wanted wanted to salute the soldiers as a form of respect,” Lee said. “The same thing with my dying scene, there’s no need to shoot this person in the head, what kind of message would that send to the West if a Chinese soldier were to shoot – it doesn’t send a very good message.”
“So the message that they are trying to send is we want peace, of course – of course thats what the whole world wants.”
Lee also offered a behind-the-scenes look at how Chinese film projects actively make use of American consultants to ensure the authenticity of the portrayal of Westerners.
“For the big productions they want to get it more historically correct,” Lee explained. For Sharpshooter, he noted, “we had two weeks of sniper training. … a former Marine [was] brought over to give a consultation. It was quite informative, quite professional, and he gave us a quite honest account of the history of the Korean War.”
Lee noted that on the set of another film, Wolf Warrior – whose sequel, Wolf Warrior 2, was the highest grossing Chinese movie of all time before Lake Changjin – another former Marine trained the actors. The Wolf Warrior films are action movies in which the villains are American mercenaries, not a historical account.
“Obviously, we’re playing mercenaries, they wanted more of a Western style so they brought in … a former Marine to help us with the training,” Lee explained. “China is really trying to improve the film market and they want more authenticity and I think they don’t get enough credit for that, to be honest.”
Lee insisted, despite his defense of the political message of his movies, that he was personally not a political person and did not take a position either for or against China regarding any of the wide array of human rights atrocities attributed to the Xi Jinping regime, from genocide to colonization to live organ harvesting – or, more germane to his recent body of work, the respective sides in the Korean War.
“For me it’s just acting honestly, it’s just acting. I don’t get involved in that, it’s not my business, I’m not in the right country to give my opinion on that, anyway,” Lee said. “It’s just for me – it’s just work, I’m trying to build up a career for myself, I’m very fortunate to be working in this country as an actor.”
Asked if working on a Korean War film from China’s perspective made him rethink his stance on North Korea, Lee replied, “honestly, never gave that any consideration. I like to think I’m quite a simple guy. I’m in this country, I respect – I try my best to respect the culture and history here, you know. At the end of the day I am a guest in this country.”
“Just like if I went to the States, even though we speak the same language, I’m still a guest in that country … I never get involved in politics, I never really share my opinion too much. As an actor, I just get on with my job,” he asserted.
Lee was more forthcoming on what he deemed the “positives” of life in China.
“I wouldn’t say I’m obligated to defend China, I mean, I am really a quite honest person, but at the end of the day, you know, being in this country for ten years has given me absolutely everything,” Lee explained, “so you have to try to appreciate everything regardless of the history or politics right now – that’s not my business, I’m not involved with that – I can only look at what I’ve achieved and what this country has given me, and it’s given me a hell of a lot. A lot more than what I would have gotten back in my home country, I’m pretty sure.”
“It’s unfair that fingers are pointed at China,” Lee contended, “because those fingers pointing at China have never even stepped foot in China, they have never embraced the culture, they have never seen how hospitable Chinese people are, how friendly they are, how they embrace Western culture, how they want to learn more from the Western culture.”
Lee credited a “leap of faith” with China for his growing career success and suggested the more “relaxed” film industry in China was a good fit for him, though he hopes to make the leap to Hollywood someday. While the Chinese film industry is yet to overtake Hollywood – or even Bollywood, the towering Indian film industry – Lee said he receives messages “every day” from aspiring actors asking about working in China.
“I can probably see more actors coming to China because obviously a lot of these movies … grossing near a billion dollars so of course this is going to have a lot of Westerners with open eyes thinking maybe there is potential in China,” Lee said.
“It’s not easy. It’s not as simple as booking a flight to China, landing … but its definitely a lot more relaxed than it is back in the West,” he explained, “You don’t necessarily have to have an agent and all that stuff so the route to working as an actor here is a lot easier than in the West.”
Lee also suggested that there is a “misconception that foreigners are over here working on propaganda movies.”
“I just think it’s as simple as … there’s so much opportunity over here, we don’t really think about the type of movie we are working on. I haven’t really worked on any ‘propaganda movies’ so to speak,” he said.
Lee said he reached out to Breitbart News “hoping to send a more positive message out to the West.”
“In this day and age with, you know, Covid [Chinese coronavirus] and whatnot, I think, yeah, why not have something a little bit more positive,” he asked. “Because every[thing] we read now is all negativity, to be honest.”
Sharpshooter, Lee’s latest film, was initially set to arrive in Chinese movie theaters in July, but has since been moved to February 1.