‘In Harm’s Way’ and the maturation of Chinese filmmaking

We all know how the war in the Pacific ended. Early on, though, the Japanese seemed to have the clear advantage. In the spring of 1942, the United States desperately needed to even the score against its enemy in the East.

The score was partly evened in April 1942, with the so-called “Doolittle Raid”. Sixteen B-25 bombers, flying without fighter escort, were launched from the USS Hornet. They bombed military and industrial facilities in and around Tokyo. 

It was known from the outset that the planes could not return to their carrier. Fuel and distance might have been issues, but the more immediate problem was that a B-25 couldn’t land on the deck of the Hornet. 

The plan, therefore, was for the planes to continue on to China after their bombing mission was completed.

China was then the nominal ally of the United States, but much of the country was occupied by Japanese forces. The American flyers therefore had find their way to friendly troops while avoiding the Japanese. 

So this was a perilous plan, indeed.

In Harm’s Way (2017) is a film about one of those American flyers, who crash-lands in China’s Zhejiang province. He is rescued by a young Chinese widow and her daughter. The resulting story contains equal parts adventure and love story—a reliable formula, as stories go. 

I don’t know if In Harm’s Way is a true story, but that makes little difference for our purposes here. If the story is completely made-up, it certainly could have happened. And if the movie is based on actual events, we can assume a generous amount of dramatic embellishment took place.

In Harm’s Way was made by a Chinese production company. The director is Danish, and the actors are almost all Chinese and American. 

Emile Hirsh stars as the downed American flyer (known only as “Jack” in the movie). The Chinese actress Liu Yifei plays the young woman, Ying, who rescues him. 

Despite the international ensemble, In Harm’s Way is first and foremost a Chinese project. The movie premiered at the 2017 Shanghai International Film Festival. 

The movie has three alternate titles: The Hidden Soldier, The Chinese Widow, and (in Mandarin): 烽火芳菲.

Chinese filmmaking has made great strides in recent years. Chinese production values have come a long, long way since Mao’s fourth wife, Jiang Qing, was supervising hackneyed state propaganda films to celebrate proletarian values. In Harm’s Way has a strong script, and the plot moves along at a brisk pace. There were no boring parts, in other words. All the characters are more or less believable—though all the Japanese characters are unremittingly evil, this being a Chinese film about WWII.

Much of the movie (basically all of the flight scenes) relies heavily on CGI. The CGI here is not quite at the level of Game of Thrones, but it’s still pretty good. You know right away that you’re looking at CGI, but this doesn’t jolt you out of the story.

Since the Mandarin language is a longtime hobby of mine, I particularly enjoyed the long passages of (subtitled) Chinese dialogue. Although the story takes place in rural China, the Chinese used in the movie is standard speech (putonghua), rather than the dialect that you almost certainly would have heard in a rural location in China in 1942.

Speaking of language: Some of the best parts of the movie take place shortly after Ying gives Jack refuge in her little home, and the two are struggling to communicate without a common language. Although this isn’t the point of the movie, these scenes make a pretty good argument for learning foreign languages, or at least being open to learning them.

The movie concludes with a historical note about the fate of the Doolittle bombers. Many of them were rescued by Chinese partisans, and the Chinese rightly take credit for this. 

The closing credits of the movie also state that the Japanese executed 250,000 Chinese civilians in retaliation. With all due respect to the losses that the Chinese suffered during World War II, that number sounds rather on the high side. 

To be sure, the Japanese committed many atrocities in China during World War II. (The conduct of Japanese troops in Nanjing in 1937 even shocked the Nazis.) Nevertheless, there are often gaps between the casualties that the Chinese government reports, and those of third-party, scholarly estimates. 

I suspect that this is once such case. The execution of 250,000 people in response to a single incident would have been logistically daunting, if nothing else, under the conditions in China in 1942. Did the Japanese kill innocent Chinese civilians for helping the Doolittle raiders? Yes, they almost certainly did. But a quarter-million?

But once again, this is a Chinese-made movie about World War II. Although seventy-four years have passed since the end of the war, the Chinese are still very much aware of those events. 

If only they reflected as much on Mao’s depredations. (Mao’s portrait adorns Tiananmen Square.) Not to mention their own government’s massacre of two thousand civilians in Tiananmen Square a mere thirty years ago. 

China may no longer be as strictly Marxist as it once was, but the country’s art and culture are still subject to inviolable party orthodoxies. 

These orthodoxies are detectable in In Harm’s Way. But this is still a rather good movie.