Errors and omissions are standard features of historical dramas everywhere. It is therefore no surprise to find Korean War history being filtered to suit domestic requirements in the three-hour Chinese blockbuster “The Battle at Lake Changjin.” Nor is it unexpected for U.S. military characters to be cardboard cutouts with excruciatingly bad dialogue. And, like many other jingoistic war epics, this prestige production co-directed by industry heavyweights Chen Kaige, Tsui Hark and Dante Lam offers little more than generic human drama in between massive and mostly impressive battle scenes.
The latest in a long line of strongly nationalistic films released during the 100th anniversary of the Chinese Communist Party, “The Battle at Lake Changjin” has collected almost all its $905 million revenue (as of Dec. 27) from domestic ticket sales. It is currently the highest grossing film of 2021, with only “Spider-Man: No Way Out” and “No Time to Die” as serious rivals for the top spot.
This very old-fashioned production depicts a string of military engagements during the winter of 1950, when soldiers from China’s newly-named People’s Volunteer Army entered North Korea. The decisive two-week campaign — known in the West as the Battle of Chosin Reservoir — forced UN forces to retreat south of the 38th parallel and initiated a war of attrition that lasted until the armistice of 1953, which remains in place today.
Though 22 nations contributed to the United Nations Command in Korea, the screenplay by Huang Jianxin (“Mao Zedong 1949”) and Lan Xiaolong only has U.S. forces in its field of vision. There’s barely a North Korean soldier, official or flag to be seen as the PVA sweeps across the land on its mission to “resist U.S. aggression and aid Korea.” The stage here reflects current geopolitical realities by featuring only two recognizable combatants.
Moral superiority plays an important role in a story that begins with UN forces in a commanding position in September 1950 and swaggering army brass including legendary U.S. commander General Douglas MacArthur (lookalike actor James Filbird) telling troops things like “I guarantee you this will be over by Thanksgiving.” But all that weaponry and confidence will be no match for supremely dedicated and motivated Chinese troops, who can survive on raw potatoes in the freezing hills while their U.S. counterparts worry about being “back in time for chow” at mess halls bursting with roast turkey and all the trimmings. Flashes of Colonel Kilgore’s beach party barbecue in “Apocalypse Now” come to mind here.
Dialogue given to American characters is sometimes so awful as to be comical, but it’s a very different story when Chinese leaders speak. As he carefully considers participation in the Korean conflict, Chairman Mao Zedong (Tang Guoqiang, playing Mao for at least the sixth time) solemnly says “the foreigners look down on us” and “pride can only be achieved on the battlefield.” A stifling atmosphere of caution, care and respect is present whenever Mao and senior military figures such as Tan Ziwei (Duan Yihong) and Peng Dehuai (Zhou Xiaobin) appear. Many of these scenes contribute little to the narrative but clearly satisfy other requirements of this state-supported movie.
The main human face of Mao’s call to arms is Wu Qianli (action superstar Wu Jing, of “The Wandering Earth” and “Wolf Warrior” fame), a decorated leader of the army’s 7th Company who’s just returned home after the Chinese Civil War with the ashes of his fallen soldier brother. There’s barely enough time for Qianli to pay respects to his parents and promise to build them a house before he’s ordered to ship out. Tagging along as a stowaway is Wu’s kid brother, Wanli (Jackson Yee, “Better Days”), whose reasons for wanting to join the army are never made clear enough for us to care.
Wanli is supposed to be the lovable and naive young recruit audiences will connect with emotionally as he discovers the realities of war and death. But this cocky, reckless and annoying character lacks any charm. Even with much less screen time, battle-hardened veterans like artillery man Lei Suisheng (Hu Jun) and the 7th Company’s “political instructor” Mei Sheng (Zhu Yawen) register as much more substantial and likable.
It’s fair to assume that Chen (“Farewell My Concubine,” “Legend of the Demon Cat”) directed the dramatic sequences while Tsui (“Detective Dee” series, “Flying Swords of Dragon Gate”) and Lam (“The Rescue,” “Operation Mekong”) handled action scenes that occupy about two-thirds of the running time. Among the best of these is a raid on a Chinese troop train by American aircraft and a heart-stopping sequence in which U.S. pilots strafe a screed field, unaware that Chinese soldiers are playing dead below. With a budget reported to be $200 million, it is surprising to see many sequences marred by wobbly CGI. Such visual shortcomings have become rare exceptions rather than common sights in Chinese blockbusters these days.
For all the money spent and pyrotechnics unleashed, this collectively directed and filmed movie (no less than six cinematographers are credited) about the glory of collective effort and suffering in attaining military success never attains the grandeur it strives for. Without the gripping emotional center it requires to make sense of everything in relatable human terms it’s just another well-appointed but rather empty spectacle.
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