The Battle at Lake Changjin: 2021’s biggest box office earner is a Chinese war film that many call a ‘propaganda piece’

The Battle at Lake Changjin is being called a propaganda movie, less of a piece of entertainment than a front of the ongoing geopolitical conflict between China and the US. The film has earned $889.5 million, about $120 million more than No Time to Die.

You would be forgiven if you are unaware about a movie called The Battle at Lake Changjin. The fact that not many people know about its existence, however, is surprising because hands down, it is the biggest box office grosser of 2021. And no, it is not a Hollywood tent-pole.

The Battle at Lake Changjin is a Chinese epic war movie, commissioned by the Community Party, which is also the most expensive film ever made in the country, with its budget reportedly equalling $200 million.

As per Box Office Mojo, it has collected $889.5 million (Rs 6682 crores approximately). Even the second position on box office is hogged by a Chinese production, Hi, Mom, with $822 million. No Time to Die, the latest James Bond movie and Daniel Craig’s final film in the role, is at a distant third position, with $758 million.

For decades, the Chinese market has been the most important one outside North American for Hollywood movies. Often, big-budgeted would-be blockbusters made on well-known properties, like Marvel, DC, Star Wars, and Mission: Impossible are given early China releases before North America to give them an early boost.

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But no Hollywood movie has screened in China after 2019’s Spider-Man: Far From Home. Even Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, a big Marvel movie, which was made keeping China in mind, did not see the light of day in the country.

Chinese authorities, as per some publications, have been making it difficult, if not impossible, for American studios by censorship and regulations.

This created an opportunity for The Battle at Lake Changjin. Directed by Chen Kaige, Tsui Hark and Dante Lam, and starring Wu Jing and Jackson Yee in lead roles, the film is being called a propaganda movie, less of a piece of entertainment than a front of the ongoing geopolitical conflict between China and the US.

Said to be commissioned by the Chinese Community Party, it fictionalises a major battle during the Korean War, also called Battle of Chosin Reservoir or The Battle at Lake Changjin. It depicts an epic Chinese victory over US forces, though the historical reality, experts say, is quite different.

The critics do not hesitate to call the film and makers out for the real intention behind the project.

The Guardian’s Phil Hoad in his review of the film said that “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.”

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The Hollywood Reporter’s Elizabeth Kerr pointed out that war dramas in general are prone to propagandist messaging and dubious historical authenticity, but The Battle at Lake Changjin overdoes it. “The dearth of Korean characters, a distant flag or even a name in passing signals the film’s utter lack of interest in anyone other than the clutch of characters at the center of the story, who support the narrative being created (for those who missed it: China good, U.S. bad),” she said.

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