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.