Operation Mekong | Dante Lam | China | 2016 | 140 minutes
The Mandarin-language popular cinema arriving with greater frequency at AMC Fitchburg 18 continues to be generally ignored in local reviews, so James Kreul decided to take a look. Operation Mekong is an efficient, if unoriginal, action film with a healthy dose of Chinese nationalism.
“A good movie is three good scenes and no bad scenes,” Howard Hawks once said in a frequently quoted answer to what makes a good movie. By that definition, Operation Mekong is a good movie. It has three pretty fantastic action set pieces, and their brisk, clean, and vivid execution will more than satisfy general action fans.
The rest of Operation Mekong is an intriguing blend of action tropes and Chinese nationalism. Sure, about 90% of American action films showcase heavy doses of jingoism, so it’s not surprising to see the same in foreign action films.
Perhaps what is surprising is that Operation Mekong was directed by Hong Kong film industry veteran Dante Lam (best known for Beast Stalker in 2008). Until relatively recently the Hong Kong industry would avoid such overt nationalism. Hong Kong films also avoided anything that might offend neighboring countries, but headlines like “PM Mulls Operation Mekong ban” in the Bangkok Post show that times have changed for Dante Lam. There’s no mistaking Operation Mekong for a Chinese film, including its use of Mandarin (for many years Hong Kong used Cantonese as its primary language).
Operation Mekong is loosely (very, very loosely) inspired by an actual international incident that occurred in the Golden Triangle—the tripoint area connecting Thailand, Laos, and Myanmar, and an area known for drug smuggling. In 2011, thirteen Chinese nationals were killed on their cargo ship in a dangerous stretch of the Mekong River. The crew members were originally suspected as drug smugglers, but this would not stand with the Chinese government. China quickly negotiated an agreement with the Golden Triangle countries to jointly patrol the area. All the subsequent international politics are relatively unimportant: Operation Mekong is the story of China saving face and clearing the names of its citizens, at whatever the cost.
Captain Gao Gang (Zhang Hanyu) leads his crack team of elite narcotics officers to the Golden Triangle to investigate. Naturally, his team is a mix of personalities and talents, including a very talented German Shepherd, Bingo. They’re joined by intelligence field officer Fang Xinwu (Eddie Peng), who requested a covert assignment in the Golden Triangle after a traumatic incident on the mainland. As can be expected, there’s some tension within the team: Captain Gao is instinctive, while Fang insists on going by the book. Their joint investigation leads them to a notorious drug cartel leader, Naw Kham (Pawalit Mongkolpisit) whose headquarters is hidden deep in the Triangle, guarded by drugged up local villagers and child soldiers.
Based on those parameters, I’m confident you can guess many of the plot points and subplots in Operation Mekong. Even when the film lacks originality, it never lacks a brisk pace and energy. The two lead actors are charismatic with a vivid screen presence, even though Eddie Peng’s performance is undermined by some unfortunate facial hair. Actually, his fake beard becomes an important prop in a chase sequence, but his subsequent beards look even more fake.
The films three action set pieces are very dynamic and crisply executed. I’ll use two more adjectives to distinguish them from similar sequences in recent Hollywood films: clean and smooth. A viewer used to busy, muddy, or shaky cinematography in recent action sequences might find the visual clarity in Operation Mekong almost quaint. Perhaps I’m overstating this because I’ve also become tired of the start/stop/start slow motion rhythm of many Bollywood/Tollywood action scenes, but Operation Mekong‘s clarity came as a relief.
The film never goes as over the top as the great Hong Kong action films of yesteryear, but there are elements that hint at that tradition. Putting not only a German Shepherd but also child soldiers in harm’s way during the action sequences for extreme melodramatic effect harkens back to films like John Woo’s Hard Boiled (1992). Ultimately Operation Mekong feels like a mild dilution of the Hong Kong tradition. If Johnny To or a Milkyway Image filmmaker had made Operation Mekong it would have been a tight 90 minutes; instead Dante Lam’s film runs 140 minutes.
There was a time when Chinese and Hong Kong action films simply would not play in Madison’s commercial theaters, unless certain titles crossed over into the art film specialty market. This has changed, and will continue to change, as a consequence of the 2012 purchase of AMC Theatres by the Wanda Group, the Chinese multi-national conglomerate led by China’s richest man, Wang Jianlin. Digital projection, of course, makes the distribution of specialty titles like Operation Mekong and Bollywood films a much lower risk than in the past.
The question that remains: will Madison’s local media approach and review these films and absorb them into the local film culture? Back in August, Amanda Finn at Wisconsin State Journal profiled the rise of Indian popular cinema in town (three years after my short Bollywood piece in Isthmus), but I don’t think any individual Mandarin-language or Hindi/Telugu/Tamil-language films have been reviewed locally. Except, of course at the Madison Film Forum.
Part of the problem is that it is very hard to post a review of these films in time to make it useful to the readership. I did not have enough lead time to know that Operation Mekong was coming for sure to schedule the time to watch and review it during its first week of release. If its limited run hadn’t been extended for a week, you wouldn’t be reading this.
In a sense, it doesn’t matter to AMC Theatres or Marcus Theatres if these films are reviewed or not. There’s enough word of mouth and on-line publicity to sustain the niche market, apparently. The Bollywood film, Ae Dil Hai Mushkil, begins its second week at both AMC Fitchburg 18 and Marcus Point, without a peep of local coverage beyond showtimes. Regardless, the Madison Film Forum will continue to improve the coverage of popular Asian cinema in local commercial theaters, despite the obstacles.