Review: ‘Born to Fly’ (2023), starring Wang Yibo, Hu Jun, Zhou Dongyu

September 8, 2023

by Carla Hay

Wang Yibo in “Born to Fly” (Photo courtesy of Well Go USA)

“Born to Fly” (2023)

Directed by Liu Xiaoshi

Culture Representation: Taking place in China, in 2008,, the action film “Born to Fly” has an all-Chinese cast of characters representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: A hotshot pilot for the Chinese military experiences triumph and tragedy as part of an elite fighter squad.

Culture Audience: “Born to Fly” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of movie’s headliners and films that are inspired by the “Top Gun” movies.

A scene from “Born to Fly” (Photo courtesy of Well Go USA)

“Born to Fly” goes down a very simplistic and generic path in this often-trite story about fighter pilots. Some of the aerial scenes look good, but when the story is on the ground, much of the dialogue and acting performances are a little cringeworthy. The plot for “Born to Fly” borrows heavily from 1986’s “Top Gun.”

Directed by Liu Xiaoshi and written by Gui Gan, “Born to Fly” (which takes place in 2008) has a main character named Lei Yu (played by Wang Yibo) who is handsome, heroic, and a risk taker in the Chinese military. Some might consider Yu to be a little reckless. Yu is part of an elite squad of young fighter pilots

Early in the movie, Yu is found to be at fault for a speeding mishap when he sought to defend airspace from mischief-making American fighter pilots. His speeding caused his plane to malfunction and forced Yu to make an emergency landing. Yu is reprimanded but he is soon introduced to someone who will become his mentor: commanding officer Zhang Ting (played by Hu Jun), who will be working with this squad to develop the Chengdu J-20 fighter plane at the Flight Test Bureau. Commander Zhang will also be training the squad on how to fly this plane. He makes the recruits repeat: “The last battle is the first battle.”

The other members of the squad are Gao Yingjun (played by Bu Yu); muscular Xia Pengfei (played by Zhai Yujia); Li Xioahang (played by Edwin Liu), who is Pengfei’s wingman; Tong Gan (played by Wang Zichen); friendly Jia Shengli (played by Jeremy Qu); and arrogant Deng Feng (played by Yu Shi). All of them get along with Yu, except for Fang, who is very competitive and wants to be the star of the program. Fang sees Yu, who is new to the program, as Feng’s biggest threat.

In this training program, the pilots are Golden Helmets and Golden Darts as rewards for excelling in certain challenges. In the beginning of the movie, Pengfei has one Golden Helmet and one Golden Dart. Gan has a Golden Dart. Fang has three Golden Helmets. There’s a certain stretch of the movie where Fang and Yu compete to see who can get the most Golden Helmets.

Since “Born to Fly” uses a lot of the same ideas that were in “Top Gun,” it should come as no surprise that one person on this team will die in a plane crash. Fang and Yu, the two rivals, have to learn to put their differences aside to complete a mission in honor of their fallen team member. It’s all so predictable.

And just like in “Top Gun,” a woman who looks very glamorous for the military is part of the story, although she doesn’t get to the biggest scenes with the fighter planes, because she’s a military doctor. Her name is Shen Tianran (played by Zhou Dongyu), and she’s treated like a “token woman” in the movie because her main purpose in “Born to Fly” is to be the potential love interest of the “hero.”

Yu, who has a background in engineering, has a tense relationship with his father (played by Yao Lu) who is very hard to please. (Yu’s parents don’t have names in the movie.) There’s an early scene in the movie where Yu is talking to his mother (played by Jiang Hong Bo) on the phone, and he asks to speak to his father. His father is home but doesn’t want to talk to Yu and tells his wife to lie and tell Yu that he’s not home. Yu’s parents want him to be in the military, but they worry about the deadly risks in his job, and they don’t want him to do anything that would embarrass their family.

That’s why Yu sees Commander Zhang as more than just a mentor. Commander Zhang becomes almost like a father figure to Yu. Commander Zhang invites Yu over to Commander Zhang’s house to meet his wife and children. Yu is welcomed into the home and treated almost like a family member.

Because “Born to Fly” is so formulaic and derivative, there’s hardly any suspense in the movie, although the aerial scenes have a lot of adrenaline-like energy and are filmed from some eye-catching angles. The cast members’ acting isn’t bad but it isn’t great either. Main character Yu is quite generic though and doesn’t do much to stand out from the long list of movies about heroic military fighters

Well Go USA released “Born to Fly” in U.S. cinemas on April 28, 2023, the same date that it was released in China. UPDATE: “Born to Fly” will be released on digital and Blu-ray on March 26, 2024.

Review: ‘The Battle at Lake Changjin,’ starring Jing Wu and Jackson Yee

April 24, 2022

by Carla Hay

Jackson Yee and Jing Wu in “The Battle at Lake Changjin” (Photo courtesy of CMC Pictures)

“The Battle at Lake Changjin”

Directed by Chen Kaige, Tsui Hark and Dante Lam

Mandarin, Korean and English with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in Korea and briefly in China from June to December 1950, the action film “The Battle at Lake Changjin” features a mostly Asian cast of characters (with some white people) representing military people and politicians involved in the Korean War.

Culture Clash: Two bickering brothers, who are in the China-based People’s Liberation Army, have various battles with each other and military enemies during the Korean War against the United States. 

Culture Audience: “The Battle at Lake Changjin” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in violent war movies with amateurish dialogue and stereotypical characters that don’t have much that’s interesting to say.

James Filbird in “The Battle at Lake Changjin” (Photo courtesy of CMC Pictures)

“The Battle at Lake Changjin” is a very bloated war movie filled with simplistic dialogue, poorly written characters and tedious fight scenes. This repetitive depiction of a crucial battle in the Korean War does not earn its nearly three-hour running time. The film portrays China’s military group the People’s Liberation Army fighting against the U.S. military during the Korean War’s Battle of the Chosin Reservoir. Because it’s a scripted movie with some fictional characters, don’t expect it to be entirely accurate to real history.

If you only want to see war movies that have a certain agenda and care more about expensive-looking battle scenes than crafting a well-made war story, then “The Battle at Lake Changjin” might be for you. If you prefer to watch a war movie that places more importance on showing repetitive explosions and violent deaths than placing importance on audiences getting to know the main characters, then “The Battle at Lake Changjin” might be for you. For everyone else, it’s a mind-numbing slog that just looks like a video game with a big movie budget.

“The Battle at Lake Changjin” (directed by Chen Kaige, Tsui Hark and Dante Lam) is reportedly one of the most expensively made Chinese movies of all time, with a production budget of $200 million. Most of that money looks like it went into the bombastic battle scenes that pull out every visual-effects trick in the book to make the explosions, battlefield shootouts and killings look very over-the-top. Unfortunately, hardly any of the movie’s budget seems to have been invested in quality screenwriting or acting. The movie’s screenplay (written by Lan Xiaolong and Huang Jianxin) is simply abysmal, while the acting is mediocre at best.

“The Battle at Lake Changjin” attempts to have some meaningful family drama, by having the movie’s two central characters as brothers who often disagree with each other. Older brother Wu Qianli (played by Wu Jing) is commander of the People’s Liberation Army’s 7th Company, where is considered a a respected war hero. However, Qianli bears the burden and guilt over the war death of his older brother Wu Baili, who was killed in combat.

Qianli’s 19-year-old brother Wu Wanli (played by Jackson Yee) admires his older brother Qianli. However, the two brothers clash because Wanli wants to join the People’s Liberation Army, but Qianli doesn’t want that to happen, mainly out of fear that he doesn’t want to lose another family member in war combat. Wanli doesn’t see it that way, because he thinks that Qianli views him as inferior and not brave enough to fight in a war. Therefore, Wanli feels insulted.

Not surprisingly, Wanli ends up secretly joining the Army, much to Qianli’s disapproval. Qianli tells Wanli that he won’t get any special treatment, just because they are brothers. In fact, Qianli goes out of his way to not give Wanli any help or advice, even when other members of the Army bully and tease Wanli because they think Wanli will get nepotism perks. A lot of people in this army doubt that babyfaced Wanli has what it takes to be a tough soldier.

Wanli remains steadfast in his commitment to the Army. And slowsly but surely, he starts to gain respect from his Army peers and Wanli. These supporting characters in the 7th Company aren’t given enough depth in their personalities or development in their story arcs. They include political instructor Mei Sheng (played by Zhu Yawen), fire platoon leader Yu Congrong (payed by Li Chen), artillery platoon leader Lei Suisheng (played by Hu Jun) and sniper Ping He (played by Elvis Han).

Wanli’s first friend in the 7th Company is a fellow teen soldier named Zhang Xiaoshan (played by Shi Pengyuan) young soldier of the 7th Company who befriends Wanli. There’s also a sublot about how one of the People’s Liberation Army also includes Mao Anying (played by Huang Xuan), the eldest son of then-Chinese Communist Party leader Mao Zedong (played by Tang Guoqiang), also known as Chairman Mao, who allowed Anying to join the war with some reluctance. People who know Chinese history already know what Anying’s fate was.

Military officials in this movie are depicted as broad caricatures with hollow personalities that just recite forgettable lines. One of these side characters is Peng Dehuai (played by Zhou Xiaobin), People’s Volunteer Army commander and People’s Revolutionary Military vice chairman. The movie gives the worst jingoistic dialogue to American military officials such as U.S. Marines Major General Oliver P. Smith (played by John F. Cruz) and U.S. Army Commander Douglas MacArthur (played by James Filbird), who’s depicted as a robotic warmonger, who’s often wearing sunglasses and chomping on a pipe.

“The Battle at Lake Changjin” gives very amateurish re-enactments of what behind-the-scenes war strategies might have been. The filmmakers seem to think that throwing in a lot of explosions and gunfire, in addition to showing men constantly shouting at each other, are enough to make a compelling war movie. It’s not. “The Battle at Lake Changjin” is an onslaught of very staged and very loud scenes of destruction that turn into a mishmash of mayhem until its very predictable conclusion.

CMC Pictures released “The Battle at Lang Changjin” in select U.S. cinemas on November 19, 2021. The movie was released in China on September 30, 2021.

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