China’s most expensive film to date and its second highest ever box-office grosser, The Battle at Lake Changjin possesses worryingly belligerent overtones. An account of a pivotal battle in November 1950 during the Korean war in which Chinese forces, who had infiltrated the country, pushed US marines back over the 38th parallel, this government-ordained project wastes no opportunity – current geopolitical tensions notwithstanding – to assert the moral superiority of the Chinese soldier. Not only is he unfazed by superior opposition numbers and equipment or impossibly harsh climate conditions, even the enemy catering doesn’t get him down. We see Uncle Sam chowing down on a bounty of turkey legs and bacon while the People’s Volunteer Army break their teeth on stony potatoes.
The film also applies its collectivist we-all-suffer-together message, standard for recent Chinese blockbusters, to its own making; it shares directorial credit between “fifth generation” leading light Chen Kaige of Farewell My Concubine renown, and Hong Kong veterans Tsui Hark and Dante Lam. At least the involvement of the latter two means The Battle at Lake Changjin is an update on stodgy recent communist party cinema epics and presumably the reason for its box-office success. There is accomplished action film-making on show here, from a turkey shoot by US scout planes across a scree field in which the camera careens between the stricken Chinese troops (Lam’s, if I had to guess); to a rowdy hand-to-hand battle inside an American encampment that, with everybody trying to shoot and stab each other, comes over like a homicidal game of Twister (probably Tsui’s).
It’s a shame there is virtually no story to sew this ungainly patchwork of styles together, apart from some threadbare twaddle about 7th Company commander Quanli (Wolf Warrior’s Wu Jing) and his wannabe soldier brother Wanli (Jackson Yee), as a stowaway who mostly exists for his comrades to impart self-sacrificing wisdom.
This film is historically highly debatable, but any comparisons to equally blinkered and jingoistic American rabble-rousers such as Rambo are not accurate; The Battle at Lake Changjin is essentially a government project. It is possible to make interesting cinema within the Chinese censorship system that still bears a communist message, such as 2015’s Wolf Totem. But here, there’s nothing to censor; it’s straight-up propaganda – almost comedically so at times. Early on, an irate Wanli sweeps open a train carriage door to escape, only to be stopped in his tracks … by a rolling vista of the Great Wall! Chinese commercial cinema is learning Hollywood’s tricks for cloaking ideology with entertainment, but in many ways it is still trapped in the past.