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Peel the Onion | 'The Battle at Lake Changjin' Film Review (Part II)

By J.B.Browne

Wait, Are We the Bad Guys? America is Hollywood "Other" in New Chinese War Epic

Earnest heroes of the war. (Bona Film Group)

The plot follows the brothers from river-village life to PVA infantrymen. There's much bonding and merriment among the ranks of disparate soldiers, who recall family life, finding humanity in their collective plight. The fact that every soldier ever goes through the gamut of human emotion in a war is enough to lure us in, regardless of storytelling origin.

As viewers, we're sucked into their camaraderie as fly-on-the-wall interlopers. We identify with their emotions and wince at the hellish conditions they must endure reaching an endpoint; death and glory or death and death or just plain survival. Here though, we're subjected to clunky off beats and sometimes jarring moments of levity that don't work against the slow burn melodrama and emotional restraint that is Chinese cinema specialty.

But within these arcs, we get two significant battles that literally shake the cinema's walls in a crash, bang, wallop Transformers-style. With music and effects mixed way too loud, you HAVE to read the subtitles to figure out what's going on. Some sequences are like watching someone else playing a war video game like Call of Duty except with a unique cheat code to make the Americans the bad guys.

For example, when a PVA soldier throws two grenades at something (maybe a tank?), the music does a level-up motif recalling a new-skills-unlocked Final Fantasy victory dance. It's pretty amusing and something you'd never see as on the nose from Hollywood. We get the actual battle at the eponymous lake in the final act, except it's not as riveting and video-gamey as the mid-film battle. Lavish set-piece design can't make up a loss of emotional grip as the battle winds on and on no matter how many fireworkical explosives detonate. One memorable scene is the death of Alan D. Maclean, who bleeds out halal turkey style just in time for Thanksgiving — a cartoon baddie death if there ever was one.

What we lose over the longsome lake battle is somewhat spiritually restored at the end with the climax of the "human ice sculptures." Here, defeated and in full troop withdrawal mode, MacArthur comes across the PVA soldiers, including the brothers, frozen to death in their fighting postures.

He salutes in deep respect, remarking:

"Fighting against men with such strong will like this... we were not ordained to win."

Bad guy: James Filbird as General Douglas MacArthur in The Battle at Lake Changjin. (Filbird)

Hollywood Propaganda in Reverse

Since there is no doubt as to what perspective 'Changjin lake' promulgates, the handful of Western viewers that do see it will have that rarest of opportunities; to experience the other side of a global GOOD COP/BAD COP Hollywood narrative, one in which America is not the wholesome world police they think they are. But instead, as marauding conquistadors on a hallucinatory quest for "American values" in the coldest reaches of the Korean War.

Western critics who have seen it and who inevitably get China wrong on most counts have predictably written about 'Changjin Lake' as crude US "counter-propaganda." It's true: 'Changjin Lake' is a loud, three-hour-long war epic that makes no bones about its patriotism. Sometimes you need to admire the boldness of challenging Hollywood's conventional narrative equilibrium. And why not? At least you know what you're getting, unlike how Hollywood peddles propaganda within the widely accepted narratives which it helps to create and perpetuate via CIA vetted scripts and military collaborations.

Over the last 70 years, Hollywood movies have functioned as the unofficial but massively influential propaganda arm of the US military and America's war efforts. (FPG/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

In this way, what really is the difference between a Chinese state department sanctioned film that takes pride in its history and movies like '12 Strong' and 'The 15:17 to Paris,' which exemplify US military valor without ever considering the costs of war. We see this denial played out repeatedly on cinema screens with films like 'Zero Dark Thirty' vetted and approved by the CIA as an apologia for torture masquerading as "just cinema."

Important to note that the Korean War or any war involving the US is never about freedom and democracy. Ravaging US crony capitalism needs imperialism to drain weaker places with better resources. At a time when the US barebacked and pulled out of Afghanistan like some horny teen, we now more than ever need global outrage at unhinged US imperialism.

But Hollywood and the DoJ will have other ideas. What's that about a new war movie on the Afghanistan exit fiasco starring Channing Tatum and Tom Hardy? Oh, it's a rewrite of history to put right the conceptions of US imperialism. An eternal insult to Afghans, preying on real-life tragedies for entertainment where the US are the good guys again.

Earnest heroes of war in movies but discarded underclass in reality. US Marines during the Battle of Lake Changjin, which was among the coldest and bloodiest of the Korean War. (Credit...Bettmann//Getty Images)

'Lake Changjin' is a powerful statement, not because it's an artistic triumph, but because it demonstrates the success of counter-narrative from a country currently being targeted and demonized by the US. Right now, as the US sails its fleet into the South China Sea, US imperialism continues to flex and posture much like the days of the Korean War.

Lastly, there's a reason why since the 1970s, there have been almost no American/Hollywood movies about the Korean War. But when it is spoken about, 'The Battle of Chosin Reservoir' is billed as "the greatest escape in US military history."

'Changjin Lake' reminds us that there are consequences to imperial actions on the other side of the world, consequences that can't always be rewritten in script form.

Besides, the "right" side of history is always a matter of perspective.

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:

Peel the Onion | 'The Battle at Lake Changjin' Film Review (Part I)

Peel the Onion | 'The Last Duel' Review (Part I)

Peel the Onion | 'The Last Duel' Review (Part II)


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