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Born to Fly (2023)

“Born to Fly” is much, much more interesting than its top line, a.k.a. the Chinese answer to “Top Gun: Maverick.” The influence of American war movies is strong on this one, in that there are shots and plot beats lifted straight from “Top Gun” and “The Right Stuff,” but that is not the point. And while the opening sequence features English-speaking black-helmeted pilots (who are never directly called American) harming innocent Chinese workers, damaging Chinese property and flipping Chinese pilots the bird, this is not a standard war movie. It’s instead meant as a testament to ingenuity, in how the Chinese army develops its fighter jet program without international tech or innovations from elsewhere. On the one hand, this is a huge testament to the war tactics referenced in the opening lines of “Patton.” But from “Born to Fly’s” point of view, there’s something bigger at stake here.

Lei Yu (Wang Yibo) is a test pilot caught up in that unpleasant skirmish with those enemy pilots, which makes it painfully apparent that Chinese firepower is only third-generation, while the enemy has fourth-generation. After the usual cinematic sorting process, full of training montages and brief character sketches, seven young pilots, including Lei and the disrespectful Deng Fang (Yosh Yu), are taken to a desert base to work as test pilots, in order to breach that difference. This involves figuring out the glitches in various styles of planes and engines, at significant risk to their own lives. Lei has an engineering background which comes in handy here, but there’s an entire base of workers (including a school full of their adorable kids) working to the same goal. Zhang Ting (Hu Jun) is the pilot’s inspirational teacher, who flies as Lei’s wingman more than once in seemingly jerry-rigged planes that don’t look like they could withstand a firm sneeze, much less flight. But the risks are designed to capture the data needed to improve the designs; and there are several speeches reinforcing the value of this data, but ideally not at the cost of their lives.

<p">Considering how many scenes take place in a spacious graveyard that’s solely for late pilots – with matching gravestones in the shape of tailfins – this is a surprising dichotomy. But director Liu Xiaoshi, who cowrote the script with Gui Guan, is clearly not interested in too many of the standard Hollywood beats. OK sure, there are cars racing fighter jets coming into land, sons who idealize their fathers, an emotional funeral and a locker-room fistfight in which everyone is very thoroughly clothed. The only woman in the cast is Dr. Shen Tianran (Zhou Dongyu), who administers tests while frowning at a clipboard, and eventually gets to worrying about Lei, who makes her a little model airplane for her desk. The closest anyone gets to shirtless volleyball is dumplings at Zhang’s house with several of the base nurses (so, not close at all). However. The final flight contains a very good plot twist, one that genuinely adds the frisson of danger the C.G.I. battles are otherwise generally lacking. But more than that, the final coda is a very pointed reminder about what genuine strength is.

This is especially interesting because over the course of the film the entire cast – which is, with Dr. Shen and a few minor exceptions, entirely male – is shown crying at one point or another. I do not mean glistening eyes. I do not mean some manful sniffling. I mean proper tears. This is not just an idea of masculinity that’s literally unimaginable from an American perspective. This is a willingness to demonstrate the human cost of war that American movies have not been interested in for some time. And this ability to face up to the human cost of war means that the necessary human sacrifice is treated with the greatest of respect, which is something that American blockbusters no longer bother to do. The single shot of an entire control room bowing in grief and shock in front of their monitors after a death bespeaks more humanity and understanding of suffering than has been seen in a very long time.

And it’s this attitude to war, in combination with the final sequence, that makes “Born to Fly” a necessary watch for anyone interested in how art faces up to war. It goes beyond the idea of dying for your country, and then past the idea of making the other poor dumb bastards die for theirs. It’s more interested in the kind of victory that comes from not needing to fire a shot – whether that’s because of the moral high ground, the air superiority to make defiance futile, or simply the courage to know which battles truly need to be fought. It’s this attitude which has brought the movie international distribution, because it’s a warning shot of both soft and hard power. “Born to Fly” knows exactly what it wants its audiences to see. The question is whether audiences around the world will get the message.

One final thing: the space between the finale and the credits is given over to what purport to be genuine recordings of the final words of a few test pilots. As the lines between military movies and cinematic propaganda continue to blur worldwide we can expect a lot more of this.


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