The war epic “The Battle at Lake Changjin” has been a massive hit in China in just its first 10 days of release, grossing $633.2 million on its way to a projected final tally of $830 million. That achievement would make it the world’s biggest movie in 2021, just based on its receipts in China.
Known to American forces as the Battle of Chosin Reservoir, the November 1950 engagement turned the war from an American-led rout of North Korean forces into the decades-long stalemate that still exists on the Korean peninsula.
Chinese forces surprised United Nations troops, and a force of 30,000 was confronted by 120,000 Red Army soldiers. American military history portrays the battle and the defense by troops nicknamed the “Frozen Chosin” as a heroic tale of survival against incredibly long odds as U.S.-led forces successfully retreat to the port of Hungnam.
That’s not the perspective offered by “The Battle at Lake Changjin.” The three-hour epic portrays a brave “volunteer” fighting force who face the allegedly invincible American Army and its ruthless leader, Gen. Douglas MacArthur. The film ends with a flag-waving celebration as Chinese forces celebrate the withdrawal.
There’s no word yet on a U.S. release and the online trailer doesn’t even have English subtitles, but it gives a good idea of exactly what kind of movie this is.
Now celebrated as a massive victory against oppression by the West, the Chinese Red Army’s participation in the Korean War came at a massive cost, with an enormous death toll that’s likely far greater than 200,000 troops. “The Battle at Lake Changjin,” made with input from the Chinese government, ignores any facts that might detract from the heroic story it is trying to tell.
“The Battle at Lake Changjin” stars Wu Jing, perhaps the greatest action hero in Chinese movies today. He starred as spec-ops badass Leng Feng in “Wolf Warrior” (2015) and “Wolf Warrior 2” (2017) and astronaut Liu Peiqiang in the science fiction epic “The Wandering Earth” (2019). He’s become a Chinese icon for playing characters who embody the country’s self-image as the world’s most benevolent superpower.
The U.S. forces are portrayed by English-speaking actors who’ve made a career playing bad guys in Chinese-language movies. Unless you’re a hardcore Asian action movie fan, it’s likely you’ve never heard of Nathaniel Boyd, John F. Cruz, James Filbird, Darren Grosvenor or Rudy van Gelderen. That’s most likely a purposeful choice. Why give the bad guys any gravity by casting a high-profile American or British actor?
Budgeted at more than $200 million, “The Battle at Lake Changjin” is the most expensive Chinese production to date and features a trio of legendary directors with Chen Kaige (“Farewell My Concubine”), Hark Tsui (“Once Upon a Time in China”) and Dante Lam (“Operation Red Sea”) behind the camera.
While some Chinese viewers have described the film as boring, its patriotic fervor seems to have touched a nerve with a public that’s ever more willing to embrace narratives that portray China as a force for good in a world corrupted by Western powers.
According to an article in “The New York Times,” journalist-turned-businessman Luo Changping was arrested after a post on Weibo (aka Chinese Twitter) that said, “Half a century later, few Chinese people have reflected on the justifiability of the war.”
His crime? The government says Luo Changping violated a recently enacted law that prohibits the “defamation of political martyrs.” A government statement made the national position clear: “Some individuals still try to completely deny the War of Resistance against the United States and Aid Korea, question the justice of sending troops, and try to erase the great victory. … No matter how they distort, obliterate, falsify, tease and denigrate the facts, history is written in the hearts of the people.”
So why should we all watch a movie that portrays Americans as the bad guys in the Korean War? Because “The Battle at Lake Changjin” is a movie that’s winning the hearts and minds of the Chinese public. If our next potential conflict is with China, knowing exactly how and why their attitudes are changing will be critical to either preparing for or preventing war.
The other reason is that Wu Jing is a great action star, an actor who’s as good as Sylvester Stallone or Bruce Willis at their “Rambo” and “Die Hard” peaks. Even at their most jingoistic, Wu’s movies never disappoint, and “The Battle at Lake Changjin” seems likely to be another winner from the actor.
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