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This Gruesome Chinese War Epic Was (Nearly) 2021’s True Global Box Office Champ

Spider-Man might have knocked it off its pedestal just as the year drew to a close, but The Battle of Lake Changjin’s nearly billion dollar haul is actually much more impressive when you take a closer look

It was almost an example of art reflecting life: A proud Chinese group banded together to stop an imperialist incursion in the East from overconfident Americans with an arsenal of superior numbers and technology. In December 1950, at the Chosin Reservoir (also called Lake Changjin), it meant a devastating withdrawal by the U.S. Marines. In December 2021, it meant China coming thisclose to dominance over Hollywood at the worldwide box office (damn you, Peter Parker!).

No one predicted that the end-of-the-year tally of movie receipts would echo the Korean War, but, strangely, that’s what happened.

The stakes are, thankfully, considerably lower this century — it’s just a friendly competition unless you’re a shareholder — but it’s still notable. In short, the mix of the ongoing pandemic and Hollywood’s China problem (i.e., a very tight lid on how many movies get imported there) has upended the longstanding tradition of American dominance at global movie theaters. 

At this time last year, when covering 2020’s box-office champ The Eight Hundred (an intensely jingoistic Chinese war epic that made $472.5 million despite many of China’s theaters being closed), I wondered if this was just a fluke or a harbinger of things to come. The Battle at Lake Changjin, another intensely jingoistic Chinese war epic, and its 2021 take of $906 million, suggests the latter. 

The Battle of Lake Changjin, the most expensive Chinese production ever, is a three-hour team-up of a trio of the nation’s most successful film directors — Chen Kaige, Tsui Hark and Dante Lam. Its first hour offers context about the Korean War (alternatively called the War to Resist Aggression and Aid Korea), and the next two hours focus on the decisive victory named in the title, which, as is displayed on cards at the end “set a perfect example for annihilating a U.S. reinforced regiment … causing the U.S. main force on the eastern front to encounter the greatest setbacks in the history of the Marine Corps.” These facts are displayed as music swells, and we’re eventually reminded that “the mighty martyrs of the PVA will never be forgotten!”

Prior to the release of Spider-Man: No Way Home, Changjin was the global box office champion by a substantial margin. Alas, although China’s cap on imports denied the nerdy New York kid with spider-powers entry into one of the largest movie markets (it likely won’t ever play in China), it still swung past the $1 billion mark in less than a month.

But that’s Spider-Man. The whole world (especially India) adores Spider-Man. Changjin’s success is almost entirely from its domestic market. (It played a few theaters in the U.S., which accounted for 0.04 percent of its haul; meanwhile, it was banned in the staunchly anti-Communist market of Malaysia.) The gargantuan numbers are all the more impressive with this consideration and make it the highest grossing non-English language film ever.

All of which raises the question: Is the movie any good?

Well, it’s certainly interesting. It’s rare, at least for me, to see such blatant nationalist propaganda presented with a straight face. This isn’t to say that the U.S. is above such filmmaking, at least in broader strokes. But even movies like the very red, white and blue Hacksaw Ridge and American Sniper, both of which won Oscars (and were nominated for Best Picture), have their “what are we fighting for?” moments to keep them grounded in some kind of reality. There isn’t an inch of that in Changjin. It’s three straight hours of fervent flag-waving rhetoric, broken up only by scenes of intense, bone-shattering, gory combat sequences. 

That Changjin is a collaboration between three directors makes thematic sense (the film places a big emphasis on the value of cooperation to achieve greatness), but it’s a little strange considering who is involved. Kaige is best known in the West as the director of Farewell, My Concubine, a lush historical drama with LGBTQ themes. It won the top prize at the Cannes Film Festival in 1993, and was nominated for a Best Cinematography Oscar. Hark is a contemporary of John Woo (he produced some of Woo’s early classics) and was a stalwart of the stylish and sly Hong Kong New Wave. In Hollywood, he made the bonkers Double Team, which starred Mickey Rourke, Jean-Claude Van Damme, and yes, Dennis Rodman. Lam, a bit younger than the other two, is a leader among the current creators of intense, large-scale action films coming out of China. His Operation Red Sea from 2018 earned over $500 million.

It’s a little unclear just how the division of labor worked on Changjin. It’s certainly possible that the heavily choreographed set pieces in which extras are machine-gunned into hamburger come from Lam, the weepy dialogue between brothers dreaming about the farm Chairman Mao promised their saintly parents is from Kaige and the slow-mo shots of two enormous tank shells smashing into one another are the work of Hark. But I could be mistaken.

What works well in the movie, despite its unusual provenance and the obvious “must be approved by the Central Committee” vibe, isn’t just the action — I lost count at how many severed carotid arteries I saw (and always in unexpected ways!) — but the way the film nails down the geography of the battles. Someone involved in this production clearly anticipated a quiz after a screening, but considering how many chaotic action movies end up being digital smudge by the final reel, I was grateful for this creative choice. Changjin doesn’t overly rely on split-screen, but when the image does get carved up in intricate ways, you can sit back and think, “Oh, yeah, we’re gonna see how this maneuver worked in a clear and declarative sheen!”

Another aspect I enjoyed — or maybe I should say “enjoyed” — was watching the American actors who got roped into this production. General Douglas MacArthur is basically Voldemort, a creaky skeleton with rancid skin, belching out pompous pronouncements from behind a pipe. Rarely will you see a more bizarre mangling of American accents than in this movie, wherein some of the infantrymen sound like John Wayne via South Africa. (A colleague who writes for a Hong Kong-based outlet tells me that, despite the film’s huge production values, the dubbing was blithely outsourced to a French company.) That said, I have no doubt that this is what foreign nationals in American movies have sounded like to the rest of the world forever.  

One sequence, set during Thanksgiving, shows the American army feasting on moist turkey legs and stuffing, while the virtuous Chinese starve on a mountain range with only frozen potatoes. Most of the invective is saved for the American “way of life,” of course, not the soldiers themselves — especially the ones who take a moment to acknowledge the colossal bravery and might of their Chinese contemporaries. Colonel Allan MacLean is practically saluted as he dies of his combat wounds, and his squadron, the Polar Bears, are positioned as brothers-in-arms with our prime focus, the valorous 7th Interpenetrating Company. (But only so long as the first acknowledgement comes from the invading imperialists.)

Admittedly, I am no Korean War scholar. Anything beyond Father Mulcahy is a little out of my league. So I don’t feel confident weighing in on The Battle at Lake Changjin’s historical accuracy. As a benchmark in popular cinema, however, it’s extraordinary. It’s one thing to see a cornball movie interspersed with flaming corpses and think, “Wow, some people like this?” It’s another thing when it makes close to a billion dollars during a worldwide pandemic. 

Last year’s The Eight Hundred, ultimately a very similar project, snapped together a little better than this movie, and I recommend it more. But they’re still both “of a type.” Needless to say, I’m curious to see what next year brings.