Film review: The Battle at Lake Changjin (2021)
More hype, more money, more patriotism
As of November 3, The Battle at Lake Changjin (长津湖) is the best performing film of this year worldwide and the second highest-grossing film of all time in China with $863 million in the box office.1 According to Maoyan, China’s Box Office Mojo, it has broken 13 box office records since its release on September 30, one day before the weeklong National Day holiday when moviegoers flood the cinemas.2
How to maximize the box office in China?
So far, virtually every news article about the film has focused chiefly, or even only, on its spectacular financial success (reviews in English are scant since the film is yet to be released outside China). My experience of going to a Shanghai cinema to watch the film during the National Day holiday, however, seemed to shed a different light.
The moment I walked into the auditorium I realized I was definitely lowering the average age in the room. Half the seats were empty, and the other half were occupied mostly by senior citizens. A younger woman standing in the middle—who, it didn’t take long to figure out, was a community worker in their residential area—was holding all their tickets and telling them where they should sit. In fact, even universities, whose student bodies are some of the most lavish spenders in China, were giving away free tickets.3
Some moviegoers, whose local cinemas didn’t have enough screenings of Dune or Lou Ye’s Saturday Fiction, have recently criticized the film’s monopoly on the daily number of screenings.4 The discussion section of the film’s Douban page (Chinese IMDB) has been removed.5 But I digress.
What is the film about and how well-made is it?
The film begins in 1950 with the People’s Volunteer Army company commander Wu Qianli (Wu Jing) coming back to his family hometown, carrying his older brother Wu Baili’s ashes in an urn, only to be immediately called back to action. As the U.S. nears victory in the Korean War, China decides to join what is known in the country as the War to Resist U.S. aggression and Aid Korea. “The foreigners look down upon us. Pride can only be earned on the battlefield,” says Chairman Mao Zedong (Tang Guoqiang, a veteran Mao actor).
Overdramatic acting by foreign actors is a common problem that often plagues not just Chinese but Asian TV and film in general (I’m looking at you, the VIPs in Squid Game). This problem persists in The Battle at Lake Changjin as well (except for the actor who plays Oliver P. Smith).6 The slow and dramatic voice and the painstakingly clearly pronounced syllables almost remind one of the listening sections in standardized English proficiency tests in China.
Wu Jing (Wolf Warrior 2, The Wandering Earth) once again plays his patriotic character who does more than his fair share of saluting. The only thing stopping him from walking around in a tank top seems to be the freezing weather. Jackson Yee attempting to be naughty and naïve as the younger brother Wu Wanli is as jarring as his Xiao Bei was convincing in the Oscar-nominated Better Days.
Hu Jun, however, earns the film an additional star for his part as Lei Suisheng (nicknamed Lei Gong). His charisma and humor enliven, to an extent, even some of the most ideologically didactic scenes.
One expects the visual effects to be better in many scenes, considering how the production budget reportedly exceeded $200 million, making it the most expensive Chinese film to date.7 In a long take that pans over a U.S. fleet early in the film, the battleships and their crew look as if they’re taken straight out of a not-so-recent video game.
Americans through Chinese lens
With the ascendant nationalist sentiment and worsening relations with the U.S., I expected the three directors—Chen Kaige (Farewell, My Concubine), Tsui Hark (Once Upon a Time in China series), and Dante Lam (Operation Red Sea)—to offer rather negative, even caricatural, representation of the U.S. and Americans. In other words, the same thing Hollywood did for as long as one can remember, and arguably is still doing, in its portrayal of China and its people.
I stand corrected. Sure, we have Chinese soldiers selflessly sharing a handful of frozen potatoes while their American counterparts cut each other in line to enjoy a Thanksgiving dinner of roasted turkeys. More emphasis, however, is given to such scenes in which a U.S. general offers his chopper to evacuate the wounded first and respectfully salutes the Chinese soldiers frozen to death on the roadside.
That is not to say the three helmers’ work doesn’t leave much to be desired, however.
Split screen and splitting headache
Halfway into the three-hour feature, I was convinced that the runtime could have been significantly cut without losing much narrative effect. A single battle sequence that is neither the last nor the longest spans over half an hour (though action film fans might appreciate the stunt work).
As I left the cinema after three hours with a headache and a backache, I couldn’t help but wonder if the project officially started as a TV series and was later repurposed as a feature film. (In fact, a sequel titled Watergate Bridge was later announced and will most likely hit cinemas during the Spring Festival in February 2022.)
The cinematographic work is impressive for the most part but not without some bewildering exceptions. Upon seeing one of several split screen scenes, in which American pilots are placed in two smaller screens in the upper corners, I worried if the Zoom aesthetics of the pandemic era had an irreversible effect on us.
Overall, The Battle at Lake Changjin is mediocre at best. The story has as great potential as any other war films out there, and its epic scale is all the more reason to appreciate it. I believe that national martyrs of any country, who valiantly fought and died for what they believed in, deserve a better film with subtler acting and more cohesive direction.
I am sure that, when that film comes, people will discuss not how much money it made, not how many crew members worked on it, but simply how good it is.
References / To go further
“The Battle at Lake Changjin,” Box Office Mojo, https://www.boxofficemojo.com/releasegroup/gr3283177989/?ref_=bo_ydw_table_1.
“Film Box Office,” Maoyan Piaofang, https://piaofang.maoyan.com/dashboard/movie?movieId=257706.
Fudan Graduates 复旦研究生, “送电影票啦！要去看《长津湖》？不知道这些怎么行,” WeChat, October 8, 2021, https://mp.weixin.qq.com/s/RjL64ZOA9aHJ-hUfIZ1yRw.
@貳傻璐仔烤大蒜, “不想看长津湖,” Sina Weibo post, October 26, 2021, https://s.weibo.com/weibo?q=%E9%.
“The Battle at Lake Changjin,” Douban Film, https://movie.douban.com/subject/25845392/.
Unfortunately, the actor’s name was listed on neither IMDB nor Douban.
Jiayun Feng, “Patriotic films dominate China’s National Day holiday as industry faces pileup of unreleased titles,” SupChina, October 4, 2021, https://supchina.com/2021/10/04/patriotic-films-dominate-chinas-national-day-holiday.