Propaganda for a coming Sino-American war: The Battle at Lake Changjin
Timed to the occasion of China’s National Day holiday, the state spared no expense in making a most lavish and expensive slab of self-congratulatory movie propaganda with The Battle At Lake Changjin. Clocking in at nearly three hours, and spectacularly presented on an enormous IMAX screen, this is a gargantuan account of how Chinese troops outfoxed the Allied brass and pushed American and United Nations forces out of North Korea near the border of China in late 1950. The ultimate result of the fighting, which included great loss of life on both sides after three years of fearsome combat, was a North/South stand-off that continues to this day. So, whether you consider the film’s finale happy or tragic depends entirely upon where you were born and grew up.
Financially, its ending is emphatically a welcome one for everyone concerned with its production. After its world premiere at the Beijing Film Festival on September 21, the epic opened nine days later to over $230 million across its first weekend, and is currently at $707 million as it looks to finish its commercial run with around $836 million, making it the biggest film worldwide of 2021 — solely from China.
Since there’s absolutely no question what point of view this $200 million-plus epic propagates, Western viewers are thus offered an opportunity to see what it feels like to be on the opposite side of a good guy/bad guy narrative, one in which the villains are the Yank soldiers who just a few years earlier crucially helped save the world from Hitler and Tojo. So it’s an unusual feeling to watch a film celebrate the vanquishing of a Western military force by a theoretically far less capable opponent — a sneak peak, if you will, of Vietnam not too many years in the future.
Like the highly successful 1962 account of the D-Day landing, The Longest Day, The Battle At Lake Changjin required not one, not two, but three directors — Chen Kaige, Tsui Hark and Dante Lam — to pull it off, and the logistics are of similar high order.
Possibly teeming with more extras than any film since the Russian War And Peace over a half-century ago, this is a film bursting at the seams with manpower, explosions, casualties and drastic physical challenges. A good deal of sometimes obvious CGI is used to fill in the backgrounds with boats, planes, trains and distant troops, but the epic feel is palpable throughout. Size-wise as well as quality-wise, the closest Western comparison to this film is undoubtedly Pearl Harbor.
The emphasis here lies almost entirely on robust combat embedded in ideological commitment. There’s a high-end video game quality to some of the big action and since the film itself is molded more with an eye to maximizing spectacle than to elucidating history, it seems rather beside the point to complain about the general lack of geo-political detail.
In brief, five years after the end of World War II, North Korea lit the fuse again by invading the South in June, 1950; officially marking the beginning of the Korean War. For a time, it looked as though all of Korea would fall to the communists (just imagine, no South Korea, no Squid Game). But a United Nations command led by General Douglas MacArthur prevailed at Incheon in mid-September, followed by the re-capture of Seoul two weeks later. Suddenly, the prospect of a communist regime taking hold throughout Korea looked very remote.
None of this background is provided in the new film, which is overwhelmingly dominated by its illustration of the Korean communists’ pride in their country and their single-minded mission of pushing out the foreigners. But faced with a stalemate at best, a chain-smoking Mao Zedong (Tang Guoqiang, who has played the chairman a half-dozen times) decided it was time to make a daring move and mobilized 120,000 Chinese troops to reverse the tide and, he hoped, send the foreigners home.
From here on, it’s pretty much all-battle, all the time. Logistics and strategy are shunned in favor of massive movements of men, anything that moves being shot at, soldiers forced to adapt, suffer, sacrifice, make bold and brave moves and otherwise trick and prevail over the well-equipped adversaries.
Among the main hallmarks of the battle, which took place in mountainous terrain between November 27 and December 13, 1950, were the bitter cold — nighttime temperatures went down to as low as minus-30 degrees — and lack of heavy clothing and rations; many froze and/or starved to death. But fortune favored the defenders, who were ultimately able to encircle the roughly 30,000 U.N. troops. They had to fight their way out, and what was initially imagined as a “Home By Christmas” happy ending for the Allies ended up as a push-back to the 38th Parallel, which is where things remain today, 71 years later.
This Battle is a staggeringly enormous thing, lavishly staged, indulgent in allowing a few characters to pop here and there without really establishing much audience connection, relishing its opportunities to achieve maximum speed and impact, and fully trumpeting a nationalistic and societally optimistic outlook.
Anyone into big-time action cinema on the largest possible screen will more than get their money’s worth, even if the film is simplistic and entirely predictable in its goals, both as action and politics. But it doesn’t matter how big your screen is at home — if you want to see this at all, see it on a really big screen.
Chinese President Xi Jinping, besieged by crises from China Evergrande to power outages, may take some comfort in recent news: A human wave of enthusiastic citizens is storming his nation’s cinemas.
The historical blockbuster Chinese are watching in record numbers is state-funded Korean War epic Battle at Lake Changjin. Its popularity suggests that Beijing’s drive to inculcate patriotism and machismo is bearing fruit.
Making the story even sweeter for Beijing mandarins, it is based on the true story of a torrid Chinese victory over America’s premier troops.
The December 1950 struggle around the high-altitude Lake Changjin – known in the West as Chosin Reservoir – was fought in one of the harshest battlescapes imaginable. Amid rugged mountain terrain, in sub-zero temperatures, an under-equipped Chinese Army Group forced a division of top-tier US Marines to retreat from North Korea.
And it is not just the US Marine Corps that has fallen to the film’s sword. It has also taken out Britain’s secret intelligence service, MI6. Box office receipts for Battle at Lake Changjin outdid those for the massively anticipated but long-delayed new 007 film, No Time to Die.
In a sign of the surging size and importance of the Chinese cinemascape, the film is overrunning every film Hollywood can throw in its path. Trade publication Hollywood Reporter writes that it looks set to become the world’s top grossing film of 2021.
“Battle at Lake Changjin, whose box office is expected to be the largest in Chinese film history, has pushed the patriotic sentiment of people across the country to a peak amid the tense China-US competition,” state-run media Global Times wrote approvingly, noting that the film has so far smashed 14 domestic box office records.
Grim epic, mighty blockbuster
The Battle of Changjin/Chosin has long been considered an epic – for Americans, perhaps the epic – of the Korean War.
In December 1950, the crack 1st US Marine Division massed in the rugged, snowbound highlands of northeastern Korea. Having reversed the tide of Kim Il Sung’s June invasion of South Korea with a surprise amphibious landing at Inchon in September, the Marines expected their final push to the Chinese border to end the Korean War.
Mao Zedong aimed to foil that expectation. Having taken the decision to preserve North Korea as a state and force the Americans back from his borders, he deployed General Song Shilun’s 9th Army Group – eight divisions – to counter America’s elite.
In a masterly feat of camouflaged maneuver, the Chinese soldiers secretly infiltrated the rugged terrain. As the mercury plummeted and Siberian winds whipped across the snowed-in ridgelines, the Chinese sprung a massive ambush.
Marine positions came under sudden, terrifying attack. A US Army regiment was decimated. A combined force of US and Royal Marines fought through a gauntlet of fire up an approach named “Hellfire Valley.”
But though surrounded by eight Chinese divisions, the Marines rallied. The Chinese assaulted en masse; the Marines countered with armor, artillery and airpower. Carnage ensued.
Then, in a retrograde movement that its commanders refused to call a retreat – “We are attacking in another direction” – the Marines battled their way, for over 60 miles, out of the mountains and down to the coast, where they were evacuated by sea. US forces suffered some 18,000 casualties.
Having cleared North Korea of US troops, Song’s peasant soldiers won a strategic victory. But it was a Pyrrhic one.
Korea’s winter proved even more injurious than Marine firepower. Post-battle, Song’s 9th Army required 60,000 replacements, notably because their canvas-sided boots rendered them extremely vulnerable to frostbite.
While this feat of combat and endurance has been widely covered in US books, films and documentaries, Battle at Lake Changjin offers the Chinese view – and shines a powerful new spotlight upon China’s role and the Korean War and the courage of the soldiers who fought it.
With 2021 marking the 20th anniversary of the Chinese Communist Party, the time was ripe to commemorate what is known in China as “The War to Resist America and Defend [North] Korea.”
China’s victories over US troops in the early months of the Korean conflict stunned the world. Not only did they ensure the survival of North Korea as a buffer state on China’s northeast flank, they overturned 150 years of military humiliations at the hands of foreign powers and paved China’s path toward superpower status.
The horrors of the weather – including Chinese troops freezing to death – the fearsome power of US air assets, and the poor state of Chinese rations are not glossed over in the new film. But clearly, the focus is on their ability to endure suffering to win a victory over a powerfully equipped enemy.
The 2021 film was commissioned by China’s powerful central propaganda department and the country’s top movie regulator, and the PLA’s dedicated film studio was one of the production companies engaged. According to CNN, it received huge support from Beijing, which not only assisted with script development, production and publicity, but also dispatched serving PLA troops to serve as extras.
With a reported budget of $200 million, it is reportedly the country’s most expensive film ever. Naturally, China’s leading filmic firepower was deployed in its production.
In the uneasy aftermath of years of extensive protest in Hong Kong, and a subsequent crackdown by Beijing, the movie was directed by a trio of leading Chinese and Hong Kong auteurs.
Their expertise spans arthouse cinema – Chen Kaige (Farewell My Concubine; Together); gangster thrillers – Tsui Hark (A Better Tomorrow; The Killer); and patriotic propaganda – Dante Lam (who directed blockbuster thriller Operation Red Sea 2 and also made a documentary praising the Hong Kong constabulary).
A prominent role is taken by Wu Jing. Wu is known for his direction of, and lead role in, the Rambo-esque Wolf Warrior flicks, in which Chinese special operators take out villainous Americans. The two films became so representative of China’s neo-nationalism that their title became a byword for assertive Chinese diplomacy.
“It is in tune with Xi’s Marxist puritanical drive – these sorts of movies which are essentially propaganda tools, you see a lot of these in the pipeline,” Alex Neill a Singapore-based security consultant and expert on the PLA told Asia Times. “There is this hyper-nationalism, that, at the moment, is being stoked by the CCP.”
And the burst of kinetic and patriotic popular culture is all part of a zeitgeist that is not just nationalist, but anti-American.
Rising anti-American wave
“Patriotism is the message and anti-Americanism is the subtext. The Korean War is only the conduit for the expression of patriotism,” Zhu Ying, a professor of cinema studies at Hong Kong Baptist University told Asia Times. “It could be any war that can significantly elevate the leadership of the CCP and rally support for the party.”
Since early this year, after it became clear that the Joe Biden administration would continue the anti-China policies of the previous Donald Trump administration, Beijing has been undertaking a major overhaul of its economy and society.
Among the actions undertaken, powerful big-tech platforms have been disempowered as the state’s economic focus shifts to more strategic industries, including high-tech manufacturing. Youth have had their gaming hours cut, and so-called “sissy boy” celebrities have been removed from the entertainment sector.
There are multiple explanations for what is afoot. Some consider it a “Red re-set” in which an austere form of communism is being re-established. Others consider the de-prioritization of “frivolous” industries and the promotion of a masculine patriotism to be part of a strategy of placing Chinese society on to a footing via which it can challenge the United States.
“Yes, Xi is challenging US dominance,” said Zhu. “Though he is not necessarily seeking confrontation with the US.”
Multiple US maneuvers – from sanctions on semiconductor technologies, to probes into the origins of Covid-19 to the creation of new, anti-China regional alliances such as AUKUS – have given Beijing plentiful causes for concern.
An essay that has been widely reprinted in state media outlets across China, “Everyone Can Sense that a Profound Transformation is Underway,” sums up the external threats that many Chinese now see the US as representing.
“China faces an increasingly fraught and complex international landscape as the United States menaces Chinese with worsening military threats, economic and technological blockades, attacks on our financial system and attempts at political and diplomatic isolation,” wrote columnist Li Guangman. “The US is waging biological warfare, space warfare and public opinion battles against China.”
Li suggested that self-strengthening is an appropriate defense. “If we allow this generation of young people to lose their mettle and their masculinity, who needs an enemy?” he asked. “We will have brought destruction upon ourselves.”
The film looks unlikely to get much play in US cinema chains.
“The Battle of Lake Changjin is a film meant for Chinese domestic audiences, not for Americans,” Zhu said. “Chinese domestic blockbusters seldom translate into international blockbusters.”
Amid the patriotic furore, those questioning the official narrative have faced official wrath.
Luo Changping, a journalist turned businessman, was arrested last week after questioning the basis for China’s 1950 intervention in Korea on social media, the New York Times reported.
But there is one irony implicit in the film that is likely to get little play in Chinese media.
General Song, who led his men into the freezing horror in northeastern Korea, was one of seven retired PLA commanders who, in 1989, reportedly signed a letter urging the government not to use the PLA to enforce martial law on protesters in Tiananmen Square.
That advice was ignored and the protest was crushed. Song passed away in 1991, and the Tiananmen Square killings have been airbrushed out of official history.
Here is the Global Times. China is said to have been moved by the film and now even young people choked with tears are eating frozen potatoes . Veterans and movie visitors salute. And unlike in US films that praise the US military and produce fictional superheroes, China has real historical superheroes.
„‘The Battle at Lake Changjin’ a successful cultural export to make the world begin to listen to the voice of China
By Gong Qian Published: Oct 17, 2021 06:39 PM
Eighteen days after its premier, the war epic The Battle at Lake Changjin has grossed over 4.8 billion yuan ($ 745.8 million) and smashed 24 records in Chinese film history, including becoming the first Chinese film to break 400 million yuan at the daily box office for six consecutive days.
The Battle at Lake Changjin is just one of several nationalist films that have become big commercial hits in China in recent years, but its influence across the country is unprecedented. The blockbuster is set to become China’s highest-grossing film ever, while its biggest highlight is that it has achieved a high degree of national empathy and cultural output for Chinese films heading overseas, which is a hard-to-reach achievement for other commercial movies.
Audiences deeply moved by the movie have spontaneously paid tribute to the Chinese People’s Volunteers (CPVs) who sacrificed their lives during the War to Resist US Aggression and Aid Korea (1950-53). According to a video on Douyin, the Chinese version of TikTok, students from a middle school based in Central China’s Henan Province experience how Chinese soldiers ate fried flour and frozen potatoes on the battlefield after watching the film. In a voice choked with tears, one student remarks how they need to cherish their hard-won lives without complaining anymore.
Similarly, a video of a young woman in Southwest’s China’s Yunnan Province eating frozen potatoes has gone viral on social media. In the video, the woman makes a lot of effort to bite off just a small piece, then bursts into tears.
In Chengdu, Southwest China’s Sichuan Province, a cinema screened the movie for 88-year-old CPV veteran Li Huawu, who lost his right eye and both hands on the battlefield. After the movie ended, he raised his mutilated right arm to salute the screen, expressing awe for history and his respects for his passed comrades, which touched many Chinese.
The “Changjin Lake Effect” has reached all levels of society from the strong patriotic sentiment of the people across the country to the audience’s actions in paying condolences to the CPVs. It is the first film in China to have mobilized the enthusiasm of the audience so extensively and deeply and lead the world to reexamine that period of history and listen to the voice of China.
We seem to have become accustomed to watching omnipotent superheroes flying across the big screen and accepting cultural input from the West, especially Hollywood, including the beautification of the US military.
But this time, The Battle at Lake Changjin is a movie that truly belongs to the Chinese, and has shaped Chinese heroes and told a good Chinese story. The Battle at Lake Changjin comes at just the right time, especially as the US military evacuated Afghanistan in embarrassment.
Unlike the illusory superhero stories in the West, China’s The Battle at Lake Changjin is from real history. Our predecessors and martyrs are more remarkable and true legends compared with those heroes that only exist in movies.
The truth is more powerful than any fictional story.“
Now there is also a debate as to whether the film should become a compulsory event for all schools, and mass-tailed propaganda according to age groups is advocated. A psychologist advises against it
“Do schools have a duty to take students to watch ‘The Battle at Lake Changjin,’ a war epic with second highest annual box office?
Published: Oct 20, 2021 05:39 PM
Chinese war epic The Battle at Lake Changjin surpassed the 5 billion yuan ($ 782 million) mark at the Chinese mainland box office on Tuesday, its 20th day of screening, allowing it to overtake the sci-fi blockbuster The Wandering Earth to rank as the fourth highest-earning film in Chinese box-office history. It is currently the second highest-earning film of 2021 at the global box-office, according to Chinese ticketing platform Maoyan.
Amid the strong patriotic sentiment among Chinese moviegoers, some netizens in Zigong, Southwest China’s Sichuan Province, on Monday suggested that local schools should organize trips for students to watch the film in theaters.
On Tuesday, the Education and Sports Bureau in Zigong replied that The Battle at Lake Changjin is indeed a good film for patriotic education, but the suggestion still needs to be evaluated if the film is suitable for minors as it contains scenes of fierce battles, injuries and death.
„I don’t think The Battle at Lake Changjin is appropriate for elementary school students. Minors of different ages, characteristics and psychological mindsets can have different reactions to the film. The Battle at Lake Changjin cannot be seen as as a pure educational film as students are not its target audience. Some bloody and cruel scenes could be uncomfortable for them and pose the risk of leading to a stress disorder,“ Wang Ying, a psychologist with the Beijing Reading the Heart Psychological Health and Technology Company, told the Global Times on Wednesday.
Huang Dexin, a psychologist at a high school in South China’s Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region, told the Global Times on Wednesday that elementary and middle school students are still at a stage when they are developing their personalities and often confuse reality and fiction.
She recommends that students watch the film with the company and guidance of adults such as their parents and teachers. Holding a discussion after the screening could help them absorb the positive aspects of the film and help them view it through a realistic lens.
According to the reply, schools in Zigong have already started to organize activities such as watching films and documentaries marking the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Communist Party of China and the local government will also recommend patriotic education films that are appropriate for students at schools.
The suggestion of implementing a rating system for films has been voiced on social media for a long time. According to Huang, a rating system could help schools and parents select the films that are suitable for certain age groups and thereby better protect these groups‘ mental health.
The Battle at Lake Changjin tells the story of how Chinese People’s Volunteers (CPVs) soldiers held their ground amid fierce cold and the enemy’s more advanced weapons during the War to Resist US Aggression and Aid Korea (1950-53).
The Korean War as the first Sino-American war to be won by China from the Chinese perspective – as a preparation for the future. Hollywood is not yet flooded with anti-Chinese films, especially since they don’t want to mess up the business in China. On the contrary, Kungfu Panda, Mulan or now Shang Chi, son of Dr Fu Manchu, dominate the scene. But it is quite possible that certain circles want to change that. It doesn’t always have to be the sledge hammerpropaganda like in the Cold War as Scarecrow and Mrs. King (German:Agentin mit Herz), Rambo, Top Gun, Rocky, or The Red flood (Red Army conquers Mc Donalds). In terms of drama, the new edition of Goebbels who advocated more for subtile entertainment versus Rosenberg who wanted open and direct propaganda is likely to be expected, butThe Battle of Changjin is more of the later..