Int’l Critics Line: Todd McCarthy On China Blockbuster ‘The Battle At Lake Changjin’

'The Battle at Lake Changjin' Bona

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.

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