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Historical fact goes out the window in favor of propagandist myth-making in the Chinese war epic The Battle at Lake Changjin. The monster blockbuster has racked up nearly $900 million since its Oct. 1 release timed for China’s National Day holiday, making it the biggest box office hit of 2021 in any market. Reported to have a Marvel-size $200 million budget, the film ticks all the boxes expected of a rousing slice of nationalist entertainment (it’s not even trying for soft power) that’s directed squarely at domestic Chinese audiences. There are no onscreen English credits, as if no one expected anyone outside the People’s Republic to watch.
That expectation and outcome are probable, given how screenwriters Lan Xiaolong and Huang Jianxin (The Founding of a Republic) play fast and loose with history. A South Korean release seems like a long shot too, and considering that all the Americans in the film are solely concerned with “getting back in time for chow,” and one sounds distinctly French, U.S. interest will come mostly from war film diehards, especially at a butt-numbing three hours.
Admittedly the COVID outbreak put a crimp in alleged plans for an American crew to contribute in China, but not even war movie pros would have been able to do much with the execrable English dialogue. Nonetheless, the budget is mostly up on the screen, and it most definitely has gone to staff paychecks: Fifth Generation filmmaking giant Chen Kaige and Hong Kong action stalwarts Dante Lam and Tsui Hark co-direct. Lam (Beast Cops) and Tsui (Once Upon a Time in China) have been dabbling in big-budget Chinese fare for years, scoring hits like Operation Red Sea and The Rescue (Lam), and the Detective Dee series and The Taking of Tiger Mountain, whose snowy finale is repeated here. Chen’s most recent feature work was a segment of the propaganda anthology My People, My Country, so anyone surprised by the final product needs to pick up a newspaper.
For all the blustery, noisy action sequences in Lake Changjin — and there are at least two per act — there’s very little story. Based on the critical two-week Chosin Reservoir campaign in the winter of 1950, the action concerns a contingent from the newly formed People’s Volunteer Army of the burgeoning Chinese state as it sets off on a preemptive offense. The goal is to stave off a potential invasion by the United States at Changjin Lake in North Korea. As part of the squad fighting in the “War to Resist U.S. Aggression and Aid Korea,” Wu Qianli (Wu Jing, The Wandering Earth, Wolf Warrior) leads his 7th Company in a series of battles before the fateful lakeside confrontation (which arrives more than two hours in). Joining him is his bratty younger brother, Wanli (Jackson Yee, Better Days), who wants to be a soldier too, though it’s never clear why.
Chen, Lam and Tsui’s fingerprints are all over Lake Changjin, but not much of their singular personalities. In the fantastical opening segment, when Qianli goes home to visit his parents, its popping color and heightened reality are reminiscent of Tsui at his most painterly. And the dusty, ballistic mayhem of the mission to destroy a communications tower in a small village is characteristic of Lam when he has the resources to go full Michael Bay. Chen’s input is most likely in the film’s fleeting character moments: Qianli’s reunions, with his brother at home and his former company pal Mei Sheng (Zhu Yawen, The Eight Hundred), the death of artillery master Lei Suisheng (Hu Jun, Lan Yu), the emergent Chairman Mao Zedong (Tang Guoqiang) mourning the death of his son, and so on. That these bits are often clumsy is irrelevant: They’re designed to underscore the pure-hearted selflessness of China’s heroes.
The Battle at Lake Changjin has already been the subject of countless think pieces about its value as cinema versus its political aims. In fairness, few war dramas from anywhere in the world have been free of the same pandering and revisionism as is on display here. However, the dearth of Korean characters, a distant flag or even a name in passing signals the film’s utter lack of interest in anyone other than the clutch of characters at the center of the story, who support the narrative being created (for those who missed it: China good, U.S. bad).
The same doesn’t hold for the American forces, in reality a U.N. squad, which is vividly drawn as a mustache-twirling gaggle of sadists. But coming on the heels of Guan Hu’s The Eight Hundred, it feels haphazard and lacking in a single vision, because duh. Beyond this, Wanli is intensely hard to like and ultimately a poor choice for audience proxy. No one in the high-profile cast, which also includes Zhang Hanyu, Oho Ou and Huang Xuan, gets much more than a sketch to work with, sapping the story of any real emotional connectivity.
Despite some sketchy CGI, the production specs are sky-high, and there are a handful of standout moments. A sequence where the camera swoops over Wu’s squad as they play dead on a rocky field, and an ambush that relies on lens flare and moonlight impress, though which of the half-dozen cinematographers — whose credits include I Am Not Madame Bovary, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and The Killer, among others — deserves the accolades is anyone’s guess.
Production companies: Bona Film Group, August First Film Studio
Cast: Wu Jing, Jackson Yee, Duan Yihong, Zhang Hanyu, Zhu Yawen, Li Chen, Elvin Hen, Hu Jun, Huang Xuan, Oho Ou
Director: Chen Kaige, Tsui Hark, Dante Lam
Screenwriters: Lan Xiaolong, Huang Jianxin
Producers: Yu Dong, Shi Nansun, Candy Leung, Jiang Defu, Chen Hong
Executive producers: Quji Xiaojiang, Chen Kaige, Tsui Hark, Dante Lam
Directors of photography: Ding Yu, Gao Hu, Luo Pan, Peter Pau, Kenny Tse, Wong Wing-hang
Production designer: Zhang Heping
Music: Elliot Leung, Wang Zhiyi
Casting: Wei Siyu
World sales: Distribution Workshop
In Putonghua, English
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