Patriotic films rarely become big box-office earners in China, yet Operation Mekong has defied the odds to become the surprise critical hit of the Chinese mainland's week-long National Day Holiday. It's secret? Plenty of action.
The film, which has pulled in 600 million yuan ($89.9 million) so far, follows an investigative team that heads to the Golden Triangle to look into the murder of Chinese sailors on the Mekong River.
The film is an adaptation of the investigation into the Mekong River Massacre, a true criminal case from October 2011 in which two Chinese merchant ships were attacked and all 13 sailors were murdered. A large amount of drugs were found on the ships leading to suspicions that the Chinese sailors had been involved in drug trafficking.
In response, the Chinese government sent investigative teams into Laos, Myanmar and Thailand. Through their efforts, it was proven that the Chinese crew had been framed, while the main instigator behind the murders, Myanmar drug lord Naw Kham, was captured.
According to the Beijing Times, the Myanmar military had been requisitioning Chinese merchant ships in their fight against Naw Kham's operations, which led to the drug lord forming a grudge and seeking revenge.
The drug lord and his cohorts were put on trial in China in October of 2012 and sentenced to death in December of that year.
While normally "mainstream" films covering such topics tend to be more educational and less exciting in nature, Mekong is filled with exciting action set pieces.
This is all thanks to Hong Kong director Dante Lam, who is known for his action scenes and ability to create tension.
Movie critics have responded to the film by saying Lam has successfully found a commercial way to present a patriotic story.
"Telling a story in a way that everyone enjoys is much better than simply beating people over the head with how they should love their country and party," movie critic Yuan Dengyu told the Global Times on Friday.
Yuan is of the opinion that Mekong is much more effective than other patriotic films because it wraps its message in the veneer of the action genre.
Compared to the recent patriotic Korean War film My War, which caused a lot of controversy when a marketing ad came across as overbearingly patriotic, Yuan said that Mekong stands out from the crowd and should be considered a role model for how to transform patriotic films into something audiences will find more palatable.
Currently Mekong, what some are calling "the film most worth watching this holiday," holds an 8.2 out of 10 on media review site Douban, a rare high score for a film with such a theme.