China's War Film Industry Showcases Troubled History With Japan

Inside China’s Booming War Film Industry

An intensely patriotic movie genre focuses on an especially brutal (and, in the West, largely forgotten) war between China and Japan.

Photographs by Kevin Frayer

Turn on a TV in China today, and before long a film or series set during the Second Sino-Japanese War (1937 - 1945) is likely to fill the screen. That these productions dominate Chinese viewing, and have emerged as one of the country’s most popular forms of entertainment, is hardly surprising. After all, hundreds of these movies are produced every year.

China's War Film Industry Showcases Troubled History With Japan Kevin Frayer/Getty Images


In 2015, Canadian photographer Kevin Frayer went behind the scenes on the set of one of these movies, "The Last Noble," at Hengdian World Studios, the world’s largest film lot located in a remote part of eastern China. The scenes he captured — selfless Chinese soldiers heroically defending their homeland; Japanese invaders being blown to bits; a Chinese hostage violently tortured to death, but safeguarding his troops' secrets until his last breath — endlessly recycle familiar, uplifting plotlines for an apparently insatiable Chinese audience.

China's War Film Industry Showcases Troubled History With Japan Kevin Frayer/Getty Images


The genre’s unwavering popularity is due, in large part, to deep, unresolved Chinese rancor toward Japan. More than 70 years after the war ended, leaving an estimated 20 million Chinese dead — roughly 50 times the number of Americans killed in World War II — many of Japan's political leaders still refuse to apologize for their nation’s well-documented war crimes, including mass rape and murder (most notoriously, the Nanking Massacre, biological warfare, and gruesome medical and scientific experimentation on human subjects.

China's War Film Industry Showcases Troubled History With Japan Kevin Frayer/Getty Images


As the Chinese government seeks to stoke nationalism and justify its roughly $150 billion annual military budget, anti-Japanese war films are almost always approved by the State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television, the country's broadcasting regulator. SAPPRFT is notorious for its strict and sometimes absurd censorship rules, banning programs for reasons ranging from promoting Western lifestyles to showing too much cleavage.

China's War Film Industry Showcases Troubled History With Japan Kevin Frayer/Getty Images


The enduring success of patriotic war dramas has also fueled a huge demand for extras, primarily young migrant workers hailing from all over China, eager to “die” as nameless Japanese soldiers for roughly $10 a day — about 10 times more than what they would likely earn if they stayed home.

China's War Film Industry Showcases Troubled History With Japan Kevin Frayer/Getty Images


But no matter what uniform they wear when the cameras are rolling, offscreen the “good guys” and the “bad guys” can usually be found side by side, browsing their smartphones, waiting for their next chance to die a dramatic death for one country or another — and for millions of avid Chinese viewers.

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