‘The Coming War on China’: Film Review

Veteran journalist John Pilger’s documentary ‘The Coming War on China’ is his fourth project to straddle cinema and small-screen exposure.

From Taiwan telephone tete-a-tete to pre-Christmas game of drones, President-elect @realDonaldTrump is inadvertently doing his darnedest to endow John Pilger’s eye-opening polemic The Coming War on China with an air of chillingly urgent topicality. The Australian-born journalist’s 60th film for U.K. broadcaster ITV is his fourth to be made with cinema exposure in mind — it screened to strong receptions in British theaters the day before its similarly well-received late-evening network bow. And this authoritative indictment of American nefariousness in the western Pacific looks set to eclipse predecessors The War on Democracy (2007), The War You Don’t See (2010) and Utopia (2013) in terms of multiplatform global buzz.

But while the title and premise may lead viewers to expect a Cassandra-chronicle of potential upcoming flashpoints between the countries with the two biggest economies and the two biggest armies in the world, Pilger’s scope is much broader, his historical perspective much longer. Indeed, the PEOTUS only pops up fleetingly and belatedly — receiving his first name-check at the 107-minute mark in a 113-minute film, as narrator Pilger comments that “the new president” was swept into office at a time when the U.S. and China had already been at “the edge of war” for some time.

The Bottom Line

A persuasively partisan example of old-school investigative journalism.

The Coming War on China is effectively an elaborately illustrated extension of a lecture Pilger delivered at Sydney University in March titled ‘A World War Has Begun,’ in which he expounded on why he viewed an H.R. Clinton presidency with at least as much dread as a D.J. Trump one. “Most of America’s wars (almost all of them against defenseless countries),” Pilger opined, “have been launched not by Republican presidents but by liberal Democrats: Truman, Kennedy, Johnson, Carter, Clinton, Obama.”

Charismatic and eloquent, and looks-wise little changed from the times of his 1970s breakthrough with films like the Cambodia-exposé Year Zero (1979), Pilger is a practiced and skilled orator. His oft-sardonic narration here is seasoned with the tirelessly globetrotting experience of a man who became chief foreign correspondent of London’s Daily Mirror when @realJFK and @realLBJ ruled the White House.

But where The Coming War on China —  an unapologetically partisan example of old-school, generously funded, investigatory journalism — stands out is the range of voices and faces with which Pilger (working with editor Joe Frost) shares the spotlight. As is standard for this particular behind-the-headlines sub-genre, Pilger includes talking-head commentary from expert observers such as Chinese political scientist Eric Li (who shrewdly contrasts the coexistence-oriented philosophy of Buddhist-inflected East with the conflict-sparking conversion-minded approach of the Judeo-Christian West) and American writer James Bradley, author of The China Mirage: The Hidden History of American Disaster in Asia.

Crucially, Pilger allots just as much time to the ordinary victims of this “disaster” — as personified by the long-suffering citizens of the Marshall Islands, an archipelago physically (“they came here and destroyed our lands”) and socio-economically (“apartheid in the Pacific”) ravaged by post-World War II American nuclear testing and ongoing military presence. Each of these speakers is accorded the dignity of being identified by name via onscreen caption, a courtesy sometimes overlooked by even the most well-meaning documentarians, and their first-person testimony is harrowing, moving and cumulatively anger-rousing.

Pilger devotes the whole first segment (‘The Secret of the Marshall Islands’) of his four-chapter film to a subject which may strike some as being only tangentially related to the matter nominally at hand. But it´s clear no accident that Pilger accords senior Marshall Islands citizen Rinok Riklon so much more screen time than Donald John Trump, the imminent proximity of whose diminutive digits to the nuclear button is currently giving much of the world apocalyptic nightmares.

Pilger himself contributes to such grim forebodings in his concluding chapter (‘Empire’), which includes animated visions of mushroom-cloud annihilation accompanied by Frost´s suitably doom-laden music — like the film as a whole, the scoring is conventional in style but generally effective. But the closing moments, as well as finally introducing Trump in understatedly ominous fashion, strive hard to conclude matters on a note of inspirational optimism. As well as the U.S., China and (conspicuously backgrounded here) Russia, Pilger discerns that there is “another superpower, and this is us. Ordinary people everywhere.” From Standing Rock, to the world? We shall all soon see. 

Production company: Dartmouth Films
Director-screenwriter-producer: John Pilger
Executive producer: Christopher Hird
Cinematographers: Rupert Binsley, Owen Scurfield, Bruno Sorrentino, Joseph Zafar
Editor-music: Joe Frost
Sales: Dartmouth Films, London (screenings@dartmouthfilms.com)

In English, Marshallese, etc.

Not rated, 113 minutes