Kevin Lee: The Briton who plays the bad guy in China's patriotic movies

By Grace Tsoi & Yitsing Wang
BBC News

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Image source, Kevin Lee
Image caption,
Kevin plays a blue monster killer in fantasy film Super Me

A gunshot rings out. Covered in blood, Kevin Lee slumps to the ground - wrapping up yet another successful turn in a Chinese blockbuster.

Back home, the British actor is virtually unknown. But in China he has become a familiar face, always playing the villain who either gets killed or beaten up - defeated by the Chinese hero every single time.

Known as Kaiwen in China, he has played a hitman in Jackie Chan's Kung Fu Yoga, and a blue monster in fantasy film Super Me. 

But he is best known in China for playing American colonel Allan D Maclean in last year's blockbuster The Battle of Lake Changjin, cementing his status as one of China's favourite Western bad guys.

A chance encounter

Growing up in Huntingdon, Cambridgeshire, Mr Lee loved watching Chinese martial arts movies. Jackie Chan, he said, was his "biggest hero".

More than two decades ago, he decided to study martial arts in Mudanjiang, a small town in north-eastern China for a whole year. It was his first trip to the country, and he could barely speak Mandarin.

Upon his return to the UK he found a job as a salesman - but he soon realised what he really wanted to do was to be an actor. He studied drama at an acting school, then returned to China in 2010.

But he didn't have much luck in China's movie industry until a chance encounter in 2013 with action superstar Wu Jing, who has since become synonymous with nationalistic movies in China.

Image source, Kevin Lee
Image caption,
Mr Lee has become a recognisable face in China

Mr Lee said he was renewing his work visa at the Public Security Bureau in Beijing when he ran into Mr Wu at the lifts. He was starstruck - just the night before, Mr Lee had watched one of Mr Wu's films.

"So I walked over to him. I said, hey, you're Wu Jing, right? I said that in Chinese," Mr Lee told the BBC in a recent interview.

Mr Wu was surprised, but then told him that he needed a "big" man to star in an upcoming action movie, according to Mr Lee.

Two weeks later, he went for an audition. He stumbled over his lines in Chinese, but Mr Wu gave him the role.

It was his big break - that movie turned out to be the first film in iconic action franchise Wolf Warrior.

'Main melody' movies

In 2014, Chinese leader Xi Jinping had urged artists to make "patriotism the main theme of literary and artistic creation".

In the following years Wolf Warrior - and its even bigger sequel Wolf Warrior 2- came out. Combining exciting fight scenes with plots promoting Chinese soldiers' heroism in foreign lands, the films ushered in a new era of patriotic Chinese movies.

Propaganda films, a mainstay of Communist China, usually rehash historical revolutionary battles with stilted dialogue and plots.

But as China grows more assertive on the international stage, its movie studios have churned out more sophisticated productions championing the idea of a strong China. These slickly-produced, action-packed films are known as "main melody" movies - a term for something that follows official government ideology.

The films often portray China as a world power which does whatever it takes to save its citizens, or pay tribute to revolutionary heroes who resist Western "imperialists".

Many of these villain roles have gone to Mr Lee - helping him carve out a unique niche.

Mr Lee said he is thrilled by his newfound success, but is also aware that he has to tread carefully with his fanbase. In The Battle of Changjin, for instance, he played an American colonel whose troops battled Chinese forces during the Korean War.

"I also have to respect what that movie means to Chinese people. It's not just a movie… because I'm a foreigner in that film who essentially was killing Chinese soldiers."

Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
The Battle of Lake Changjin smashed China’s box office in 2021, grossing more than $900m

On social media, the British actor has been criticised for participating in Chinese propaganda films.

"Honestly, I don't care what people think because it's my business, I'm just an actor... I don't work for the[Chinese] government," Mr Lee said. "I just reply with a smiley emoji."

"Foreigners [here] don't get that chance to play the main role because... this is the Chinese market," he said.

"It's the same in the West. If you look at Hollywood movies, how many Chinese or Asian actors do you see play the leading man?" he said. "The Chinese or Russians will always play the bad guy."

Image source, Kevin Lee
Image caption,
Kevin plays a US colonel in film The Battle of Lake Changjin

But one thing that does frustrate Mr Lee is the censorship.

In movies made in the West, he said, "we can talk about our presidents, our prime minister, we can talk about drugs, we can talk about gangs, but obviously in China it's a little bit more limited to what you can write about.

"Even when the movie has finished filming, it doesn't mean it would get released. It has to go through scrutiny [by censors].

"If China can kind of be a little bit more relaxed with the scripts and to be able to have more narrative, more story, I think there would be more potential [for the films] to get into the Western market."

Image source, Kevin Lee
Image caption,
While Kevin Lee feels proud of his small fame in China, he does want to try out different roles

While Mr Lee feels proud of his achievements in China, he does want to try out different roles - maybe even in Hollywood or London.

"It would be nice to play a good guy, but I have to accept that if I'm going to be an actor here, then I'm gonna play the bad guy," he said.

"[But] if I always played the same role, my acting videos would look the same. Directors won't see me as a multi-talented actor.

"My biggest dream is to walk on the street and have someone stop me and say, Kevin, you're a great actor."

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