Peel the Onion | 'The Battle at Lake Changjin' Film Review (Part I)
Wait, Are We the Bad Guys? America is Hollywood "Other" in New Chinese War Epic
The new Chinese war epic 'The Battle at Lake Changjin' — 'Changjin Lake' in Chinese — is now the most commercially successful film of 2021.
Premiering at the Beijing Film Festival on September 21 and opening nine days later on the eve of National Day — China's week-long holiday to mark the formation of the People's Republic of China — the film has grossed a staggering 5.96 billion RMB or 933.7 million USD as of November 25. Hong Kong got its premiere on November 11, opening to packed houses. Chinese distributor CMC Pictures oversees a North American release in late November with screenings in Australia from early December.
That most outside the Chinese diaspora have likely never heard of the $200 million-plus epic, let alone will muster a brow of interest to see it, is moot. The film itself is that strange brew of patriotism and full-blown commercial success — a bona fide cultural phenomenon the likes of which the Chinese film industry has never seen.
Manya Koetse, chief editor of What's on Weibo — an independent news site reporting social trends in China — wrote that 'Changjin Lake' has become a social media sensation on Weibo and TikTok. Trends include netizens eating frozen potatoes and theatres handing them out, all in honor of the soldiers in the movie. Alongside vigorous online discussions, some cinemagoers felt moved enough to show respect by standing to salute during the closing credits.
Widespread marketing and merchandise include soldier dolls, army trucks, and commemorative mugs. Koetse reports that seeing the movie is an event worthy of "virtue posting" on social media for many Chinese.
"Consumer nationalism hasn't been as big in Chinese theatres since Wolf Warrior II," she tweeted.
The story of 'Changjin Lake' — known in American English as The Battle of Chosin Reservoir, took place between November 26, 1950 – December 13, 1950, marking a pivotal moment in the Korean War.
The US entered the Korean War on June 27, 1950, to repel the North from invading the South, which was becoming a civil war. The US never formally declared war on North Korea. However, it found hubris in its newfound "police action" role globally and, needing to look tough on communism, invaded the Korean peninsula. Concurrently, the People's Republic of China, newly founded on October 1, 1949, couldn't be seen as weak, having just recovered from Japanese imperialism and the ravages of civil war, entered the conflict one month after the US campaign began.
120,000 People's Volunteer Army soldiers under Song Shilun entered northeastern North Korea under direct orders from Mao Zedong to destroy the 30,000 United Nations Command troops under Major General Oliver P. Smith.
"One punch for all future punches," says movie Mao, played by Tang Guoqiang.
On November 27, the PVA ambushed the US X Corps commanded by Major General Edward M. Almond at Changjin Lake. Out of supplies, with frozen hands and guns, the suffering US troops found themselves encircled, beaten, and stranded a long way from home. General MacArthur's cocky prediction of defeating the communist forces "by Thanksgiving" and returning home "in time for Christmas" was grossly misjudged. Embarrassingly, the one last hope for the US forces was an artillery airdrop that turned out to be Tootsie Rolls.
Of course, no one goes to a movie like this expecting rote history didactics; that's the realm of documentary. For a war epic like this, you want expensive action sequences and a relatable hero — except that a Chinese blockbuster like this doesn't really specialize in Hollywood tropes of individual heroism.
Instead, 'Changjin Lake' is a hallmark idea of Chinese collective heroism. And though the movie does have its primary characters — Wu Jing as Wu Qianli, commander of the 7th Company, and Jackson Yee as Wu Wanli, Artillery Platoon soldier of the 7th Company, and younger brother to Qianli (26 real-life years apart (and it shows)) — its overall message is one of solidarity for the team.
As he would refer himself, J.B. Browne is a half "foreign devil" living with anxiety relieved by purchase. HK-born Writer/Musician/Tinkerer.
The views do not necessarily reflect those of DotDotNews.
Read more articles by J.B.Browne: