Making a film about Lei Feng in post-Mao times must seem like a very daring project seeing that the trivial and mundane life of the worlds most famous PLA-soldier would pale in comparison with action filled flicks such as The Taking of Tiger Mountain (Tsui Hark, 2014) and Operation Mekong (Dante Lam, 2016). A creative move would then be to place the story in modern times and getting Lei Feng out of the picture (at least the person) while the new protagonist act and abide to the Lei Feng spirit (雷锋精神). For those who are already acquainted with the life and legacy of Lei Feng one doesn’t need to have a deeper understanding of China to understand the dualistic nature of mixing pre-Mao ideals (communitarianism, planned economy and political indoctrination) and todays relaxed government control over Chinese citizens private life, individualism and a market economy. Clash of ideals or not, a good story might at least have saved the film from being completely useless but the story behind Lei Feng Man is far from simple and well told.
The story centers around Zheng Yi the university student (郑义) who dreams of becoming the number one champion in a bicycle contest. His dream of becoming a champion is suddenly halted when the city centre, which all characters live in, is terrorized by the fat and greasy Gutter Oil Man (地沟油侠) who attacks restaurants which uses the illegally recycled cooking oil. The Gutter Oil Man, it turns out, is also Zheng Yis colleague Pan Ran (潘然) who accidentally gets his new superhero identity when losing a wager against Zheng Yi. As if the Gutter Oil Man isn’t enough the jealous and greedy Shen Mo (沈沫) uses his robot toys to attack innocent people because he’s infuriated that the sales of Lei Feng Man action figurines has skyrocketed and that the girl he loves, Chen Yang (陈扬), has become close friend with Zheng Yi.
Even if the story sounds pretty simple the director has for some reason decided to show parts of the story twice and also switching the chronological order. But make no mistake, this is not a Pulp Fiction-inspired story technique and it’s neither Casshern-inspired where vague storytelling is compensated with awesome action scenes and great music. It’s just plain bad. And it’s not that the movie is filled with communist jargon, exaggerated acting and completely random liangxiang-poses because that would at least fill the screen with something substantial.
The road is long for Chinese moviemakers until they arrive at the point where they can make a superhero movie that is popular among an international audience. And it’s not that Chinese lack the cultural heritage to create their own superhero universe – the pantheon of Chinese fiction is filled with potential characters – but they do lack the proper encouragement to do something with retelling the story of modern Chinese heroes. To try and mould superheroes from the clay of modern Chinese history is wearisome because there is hardly any room for creativity when one stands against the communist party and their diehard stance on “correct” historical representation (if incorrect one is blamed for historical nihilism) and this in turn leads to a production which suffers from ideological diversity. This diversity is the very essence of why I personally came to love some American superhero movies, especially Captain America: The Winter Soldier (The Russo brothers, 2014). In Lei Feng Man evildoers are lone individuals who’s moral standards are corrupted by greed and not by the society they live in. Till the day when followers of Lei Feng struggles with a ideological crisis and questions the very nature of her government and no longer has the function of a breathing political pamphlet I will start looking forward to seeing movies about Chinese heroes.