According to the box office, The Battle at Lake Changjin is the highest-grossing film of 2021. Almost entirely from within China, the Chinese movie has already earned $859 million at the box office. This is in a year which has seen ‘No Time to Die’, the latest James Bond release starring Daniel Craig for the last time. Clearly that’s had little impact on the collections which have been subdued. It turns out that the next highest grosser is F9, part of the Fast & Furious saga starring Dwayne Johnson, which has made approximately $750 million so far.
In China, the film’s success shouldn’t be a surprise since it was commissioned by the world’s largest party and caters to an audience in the world’s most populous country. The real surprise is why it has taken so long. It was made to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Chinese Communist Party, and is the most expensive Chinese film ever made. The movie recounts the story of the People’s Volunteer Army (PVA) and its victory at Lake Changjin (also known as Chosin Reservoir) against the US marines in the Korean War. Through its focus on the courage and moral superiority of the Chinese troops, the movie was a turning point in the Korean War.
Many critics have cast doubt on the accuracy of the story depicted, as well as the movie’s overt propaganda. Even though it features directors such as Dante Lam, Tsui Hark, and mainland Chinese filmmaker Chen Kaige, the film has been roundly criticized for its lack of a coherent storyline. A review in the Guardian states, ‘It’s a shame there is virtually no story to tie together such an ungainly patchwork of styles’. Others have been equally dismissive. English dialogue in the movie has been called ‘execrable’ by the Hollywood Reporter. All the criticism is not stopping the film’s makers from planning a sequel soon.
Regardless of the genre, war movies, from Bollywood to Hollywood, are generally the same – jingoistic, loose with facts, and full of wooden characters who are heroic. It is only their purpose to instill a sense of warm-fuzzy nationalism in their audience so that they can rake in the cash.
Hollywood has produced its share of positively ridiculous war films. In Battleship, a 2012 movie starring Rihanna as a petty officer, she appears in a laughable mash-up of naval armadas. In Rangoon, there is a story about a robot plane called Stealth. Unfortunately, it ended up being a dud, racking up enormous losses. In our home country, we’ve had movies like Border, where Sunny Deol fights Pakistani tanks with a rocket launcher on his shoulder and a garland of grenades around his neck. In the same director’s previous film, LOC Kargil, there were patriotic songs and dialogues. However, it was awful. With the same liberal dose of hypernationalism, Uri: The Surgical Strike is a more recent release.
Whether in India, China, or the US, such films are seen that way. The Chinese invasion of theatres may well be gaining steam. This year, China has already produced three of the top five highest-grossing films. Among them are Hi, Mom (which is different from the 1970 dark comedy starring Robert De Niro made by Brian De Palma) and Detective Chinatown 3.
That’s a dangerous trend for India, the country with some pretensions to be the world’s largest producer of movies, particularly since nothing Bollywood has ever produced has ever been as successful. We have drawn the battle lines and it comes down to pride, isn’t it? It’s time to show those Chinese their place with Kangana Ranaut’s Tejas, out next year.