Film Review: The Battle at Lake Changjin

by Nina Kosta and George Korkovelos

Continued from previous issue

The film employs new modes of expression using a variety of lenses, agile hand-held cameras with light-sensitive technology with impressive sound experiments, and electronic sounds and music. These showcase the dialectical relationship between form and content, between political clarity and aesthetic sensibility. Ivens often emphasised formal and technical factors to convey the political message and to find a compromise between his ideas and the views of bourgeois bosses. We can say that the same thing applies in the Chinese blockbuster that needs to fulfil technical criteria of the film market and its global competition as well as fulfilling the policy of the CPC.

Consciousness of the responsibility for the quality of communicating in film language and of agitating reached new levels with Ivens and we can argue that it reaches new peaks with contemporary Chinese movies. Ivens showed how the imperialist bourgeois class had organised using mass media in a higher level and by possessing an arsenal to exercise its ideological dominance. We are now witnessing China possessing very sophisticated means of cultural and ideological production that rival and surpass those of the West.

The aesthetic perception and often sensory overload of the harsh reality of the Korean War that is present in every scene of the Battle combines with the precise editing choices where the images combine to signify a political language that works with archetypical images, characters and symbols that are legacies of Soviet movies and earlier Chinese propaganda works. This political message happens at the same time as the aesthetic experience, they are not separate. It is a filmic language for argumentation, interpretation and a rallying call that is able to be effective at an abstract level precisely because it makes full usage of the potential of the concrete. It is a language that aims at the emotions of the spectator to bring about changes in his consciousness.

The Battle uses new technologies, like computer-generated imagery and video gaming to create an immersive experience for the viewer. These can lend themselves to the political message in the same way that the innovations of Soviet montage (Eisenstein’s theory of editing) had offered new possibilities for accessible and effective proletarian agitation. We must not leave such advances to the sole mercy of capitalist ideology but instead try to see how they can be useful to convey progressive messages. The Chinese have shown true ability in employing such techniques and tropes of Hollywood to this end.

In the Battle, we see plenty of eagle-eye shots, the use of drones to create sweeping movement over vast landscapes that are zooming in and out, from inside the pupil of a soldier’s eye; and the most spectacular close up technologically possible today.  The aim is to give the contemporary viewer the opportunity to ‘know’ not just theoretically but also to access visually and sensorially the everyday harshness of the destructive imperialist wars, to be put in the shoes of those soldiers and experience the assaults they had to endure. Some cinemas in China in fact complemented the screening of the movie with sharing potatoes and water in reference to the dire conditions of the PLA campaigns).

As viewers, we ‘participate’ in this heroic battle, we see and hear (echoed and multiplied tenfold by the expert musical score) the US bombers tearing up the skies, American tanks that tear apart the earth. We also partake in and witness the heroic efforts of the Chinese soldiers, their courage and intelligence and humour. We experience the terror of the approaching enemies, but also the discipline, the fervour with which the Chinese volunteers confront them. The perspective of multiple cameras puts the viewer right next to the fighters, when they hide from the bombers flying over them. The images are edited and framed in individual squares to emphasise how each one of these soldiers is alone but simultaneously part of the collective effort (a visual device reminiscent of the mass games of DPRK where individual panels form a huge image that shifts and changes to display episodes of the national history, in a spectacle of high skill, collective coordination and unity).

It can be argued that contemporary Chinese propaganda films, in similar ways to Ivens’ films, articulate a political narrative that works together with the direct aesthetic experience of the cinema-goer. The edited images of the frames of the individual soldiers symbolise the collective fighting spirit of the Chinese that, unlike the coercion of the imperialist hawks, is based on the free consciousness and action of the individual. One notices the application of Ivens’ theory of the three levels (i.e., personal, emotional, historical) and the importance of people as subjects of socialist history rather than pawns of the imperialist system.

A lot of Western media commentators appeared irritated at the message of the moral superiority of the Chinese PLA soldier and this shows that the movie was indeed successful in conveying this historical reality in aesthetic terms. The cinematic means to achieve that are often the same as those used by Soviet movies, Brecht’s epic theatre and older Chinese propaganda films, and have to do with a precisely studied use of montage that juxtaposes the humanity of the Chinese volunteer army to the technological superiority of the US imperialist war machine. It shows a nation composed of popular heroes and their successors united and confident against the aggressor, undefeated even when faced with the technological superiority of a superpower.

Chinese fight back

It is clear that the film aims at sensitising and mobilising against this system that murders peoples, against this giant war machine and destructive military technology aimed at a heroic people that fights back. It targets and exposes the war ethic of imperialism against a people that shed blood for their independence, an independence that is constantly in need of defending against aggressors. The movie shows faith in the power of the people of China and the potential of the new generations that are forged amidst such struggle. It is a faith professed without a shred of a doubt and this is what most irritates and threatens the imperialists.

Ivens had called his films “signs of impending storm” referring to the struggle of third world countries for independence, national and social liberation and socialism. Chinese movies like this also have a part to play in the current anti-imperialist and anti-hegemonic movement; they do not only predict the storm (like Eisenstein’s Alexander Nevsky, released in 1938 did) but show the conditions presupposing the final victory of the peoples against imperialism.

Ivens was against the revisionist concept that seeks to defame the teachings of peoples’ armed resistance and people’s army as “militarist dogma”. He instead insisted that the building a new society coincides with armed struggle: it is part of the revolutionary process. In many ways, The Battle at Lake Changjin reminds young Chinese of the importance of honouring armed struggle.

Social and political context of the release of the movie:

The Battle of Lake Changjin was released during the week-long National Day holidays. At the same time as going to see Battle at Lake Changjin, Chinese people were paying tribute to their heroes in different ways during their holidays. We saw the film in a very different environment, on a small screen at the Odeon cinema in Leicester Square, London, together with some 50 people, the majority of whom were young and of Chinese origin. A group of three young women was sitting next to us, an unusual occurrence for screenings of typical western war movies, and they all looked fully engaged, at different times amused (by humorous linguistic puns), enthralled, and moved during the three hour long film.

Now, however a sequel has been made, The Battle at Lake Changjin II: Water Gate Bridge and is showing in London. Another Chinese film entitled Snipers was released on the same day (February 1st 2022), which depicts a battle between Chinese and US snipers, presenting both perspectives. It was directed by Zhang Yimou, the Chinese director of the opening ceremonies of 2008 Beijing Summer Olympics and 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics, and his daughter Zhang Mo. Many military fans who watched the Zhangs’ film thought it better than The Battle at Lake Changjin II: Water Gate Bridge in terms of the story and details related to military battles. They told the Global Times that they strongly recommended Snipers (Yang Sheng  and Xie Jun, ‘Chinese war film makes box office record as cultural confidence rises’, Global Times, 10 February 2022). Zhang Yumou said in an article published in the People’s Daily, that “box office data is just a number, but what stands behind these numbers is the heart of the people

Chinese film critic Shi Wenxue said it is a good move for the prosperous development of the Chinese film industry and conveys the spirit of the 14th Five-Year Plan (2021-25) for the film industry released by China Film Administration in November. “Due to the outbreak of the pandemic, all parties in the film industry should unite and work hard to overcome the current difficult period, which reflects the ‘community with a shared future’ for the film industry“.

The West’s reception of the film

Not just those of the US, but the media of its allied countries also disapproved of the Chinese film. The Guardian went so far as to say that “China’s costliest film ever is a sporadically thrilling, historically dubious account of a Korean war standoff, with all the subtlety of a rocket launcher” (Phil Hoad, ‘The Battle at Lake Changjin review – China’s rabble-rousing propaganda war epic’, 19 November 2021). It is clear from the vocabulary used, that western journalists are reacting to the plot of the film as if it were a personal attack – another proof that the film’s anti-imperialist message has hit its target!

The Guardian’s critic writes: “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 historical triumphs of the Chinese people’s army are harder to swallow for the Guardian readers than those stony potatoes.

Interestingly, and despite all the crude ironic, disrespectful and racist comments that the Guardian feels compelled to make in defence of its imperialist masters, the critic cannot but admit that the film 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 screen field in which the camera careens between the stricken Chinese troops; 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. Chinese commercial cinema is learning Hollywood’s tricks for cloaking ideology with entertainment, but in many ways it is still trapped in the past.

We hear it confirmed from the horse’s mouth, that this film is annoyingly successful and linked to a socialist past that so much disturbs those who fear a repetition of history and a defeat of the USA. It is telling that the Washington Post found the film unbearable and “capitalising on demand for gory action movies that celebrate the Chinese Communist Party’s rise” (Christian Shepherd, ‘Americans vanquished, China triumphant: 2021’s hit war epic doesn’t fit Hollywood script’, 14 October 2021).

Chinese reactions

Shi Wenxue, a film critic working in Beijing for the Global Times, called the film “a war epic that represents the highest level of Chinese film industrialisation” (‘Battle at Lake Changjin pushes Chinese patriotism to peak’, 8 October 2021).

Most moviegoers who watched the film told the Global Times that they were touched by the scenes where Chinese soldier Yang Gensi (a historical figure of ultimate sacrifice), picked up an explosive bag and died with the US enemies, and a total of 125 Chinese People’s Volunteers (CPVs) were frozen to death on the battlefield.

In the CPV martyrs’ cemetery in Shenyang, Northeast China’s Liaoning Province, many residents spontaneously came to mourn the heroes by laying flowers, along with models of a J-15 fighter jet and photos of a J-20 stealth fighter jet, with a card saying “This is the best comfort! We own advanced fighters and a powerful air force!”

Some cinemas in China offered cooked potatoes and water for commemoration of the hardships faced by the generation that fought in the Korean War. A video about a young woman in southwest’s China’s Yunnan Province experiencing how Chinese soldiers ate frozen potatoes on the battlefield has gone viral on social media. In the video, she makes a lot of effort to bite off just a small piece, she then bursts into tears. We understand it is almost impossible for contemporary audiences in the West to share in this feeling of humility, gratitude and respect towards those who lost their lives for the anti-imperialist struggle.

An old veteran, Wang Yang, a retired officer, who served in Yang Gensi’s troop for eight years, said he went to watch the movie the day it was released:

Military men of that era during the War to Resist US Aggression and Aid Korea were very disciplined and solid. They made their choice to take part in the war for the peace, happiness and future of China”, he said

For soldiers and officers, whether in service or retired, if there is a war or invasion, if the order is given, we would dash forward like the old generation,” he added. Though he already knew the history by heart, Wang said to the Global Times that he was impressed by the film, and thought it was meaningful and essential to tell the story today, especially to young generations.

Educating young generations

Lei Fei, a teacher in a university in East China’s Jiangsu Province, told the Global Times that the main feedback from her students was that the heroes in the movie were very grounded, and that the realistic description of the heroes had moved and inspired them.

I think this movie makes more young people willing to take the initiative to learn from this time in history, and the artistically processed plot in the movie can help students better empathise”.

We still need to develop the fighting spirit of the war and unite as one, then we will surely win in China-US competition,” Chen Jianyong, a 57-year-old veteran living in Tianjin, told the Global Times after watching the movie. Again, this kind of patriotism is completely unknown to western imperialists who feel obligated to make a pseudo-intellectual mockery of it.

Based on the reports in the Chinese press, one quickly understands that The Battle at Lake Changjin is not simply a movie for entertainment, but involves a more emotional resonance.

The popularity of The Battle at Lake Changjin fits the rising national sentiment in the constant rivalry between China and the US,” said Xiao Fuqiu, a film critic based in Shanghai. He notices how, though many foreign media have reported about the film, they just focus on the box office instead of talking about the content and the war.

The War to Resist US Aggression and Aid Korea itself is an unpopular topic in the US, and it is even called the ‘forgotten war.’ In Hollywood, there are almost no movies focusing on the Korean War,” said Xiao. “The success of The Battle at Lake Changjin proved that patriotism is the simplest emotion rooted in the heart of every Chinese”, concludes Xiao.

Imperialist mission and Christian fundamentalism

Dozens of warplanes are reflected in the aviator sunglasses of the American general Douglas MacArthur in the first scene of the film, which introduces us to the character. He is certain of a speedy victory over the North Korean army. While US troops tuck into a buffet of roast chicken, frost-covered Chinese soldiers gnaw on frozen potatoes to fend off hunger.

The American army we are about to face is the best-equipped in the world,” a Chinese People’s Volunteer Army commander tells a train car full of fresh-faced men. Later, as they charge into battle through knee-deep snow, a cry goes up: “Resist American aggression and aid Korea — protect your home and country!”

General MacArthur in the film is the embodiment of US imperialism and is portrayed as the direct representative of God on Earth. The script makes several references to God leading the American army. MacArthur acts like a warrior priest whose primitive language resembles a church sermon, and the army is shown as a congregation.  Τhe Chinese directors are very astute in visualising what Domenico Losurdo in his book  The Language of the Empire – A Lexicon of American Ideology describes as elements of fundamentalism present in western military expeditions. We are dealing with a political tradition that is expressed in theological terms. This contradiction is evident in the use of a language that we have come to expect from American politicians. The speeches delivered at official ceremonies by the presidents are like ecclesiastical sermons, notes Losurdo. 

God is on America’s side.” These buzzwords are heard on television, referenced in books and studies, and affect millions of people and Christian circles who are struggling to justify their occupation of other countries in every way possible. “God is for war” and in fact participates in it personally. “God opposes all those who fight against Himself and His Believers.” The character of MacArthur uses similar language to address reporters and journalists in the movie: “We will make Korea whole” and “God will lead our path”. Losurdo writes:

“The importance given to the term ‘holy war’ in the American political tradition is evident even today. By definition, sacred laws and holy wars fought in the name of God do not mean that the borders of nations and states are respected. Indeed, critics of fundamentalism emphasize that it does not recognize national independence, a view that the White House emphasizes. “For some time now, White House officials have been declaring that they have the exclusive right, or rather the duty, to intervene anywhere in the world to carry out the requirements of the Gospel.

Despite their technological superiority, Americans are going to war against fellow human beings claiming they are in direct contact with God. We are seeing a great contradiction of a secularised religion, according to which:

Once again, material and geopolitical interests, hegemonic imperial ambitions and a good missionary and democratic conscience are mixed and fused into an indivisible whole. With this ideological platform they faced the conflicts of the 20th century” (Losurdo).

The identification of God and America is obvious in the movie.

War with a cloak of religion is seen by the Chinese as a moral and cultural paradox when compared to the way they themselves conduct war in defence of their motherland. It is a curious paradox for the Chinese: how can someone who is carpet bombing a country be rushing to celebrate Thanksgiving (by when MacArthur states the war will be over). Ironically, it’s like they are giving countries as sacrifices by way of thanks to their God. “In the case of the United States fundamentalism seeks God’s help to help them build a world empire”, writes Losurdo, adding that ”The primitive religion that comes to the fore again, is identified with the nation.”

The ideology of USA’s war can be described as Americanism, and this is what the film manages to depict in a few short but concise scenes, like the one showing the preparations of the troops (prancing around for the reporters), or the close up of an American pin up girl in a poster that confuses the Chinese soldiers who accidentally come across it.  In this context, “Americanism” is the ideology that legitimises and sanctifies the incongruities and “primitive rituals they use to confirm their superiority as the chosen people” of God and their hegemonic aspirations.

Losurdo writes that it is the “advantage of their technological and military superiority and the belief that they represent a superior civilization that makes them look down on the subhumans (untermenschen), and treat them as inferior”.  In the movie, the Chinese are called  “peasants” and “gooks” and treated as inferior to the best “goddamn army on God’s green earth”. We see a portrayal of the Americans that perfectly captures the neofascist, white supremacy of religious fundamentalist crusaders against communism.

Leopold Ziegler said that the history of the United States is the “history of an unprecedented expansion, enlargement, and hegemony” and demonstrates the principle of “inequality and difference of values that applies to different races but also between individuals of the same race.” The movie shows this in a very brief but effective manner, when it exposes the inequality between the soldiers of the American army (an officer scorns Marines as “leathernecks” that need to be shown what war is).

Concealing expansive views with religious arguments, invoking the blessing of God on an army that aims to drown a people in blood, while presenting the USA as the chosen people of the Lord, these are the features of fascism that the movie exposes.

Losurdo reminds us that it was “Hitler, who stated that he had been assigned to carry out a ‘divine Mission’ and that he would submit to the will of the Almighty. Later, when he attacked the Soviet Union, he repeatedly asked God to help him in this struggle. Even clearer is his proclamation on December 19, 1941 ‘the Lord will not deny victory to his worthy soldiers’.”

Losurdo makes an important argument on the nature of imperialism and its fascism as an integral part of colonial ideology. He quotes Chen Jian, China’s road to the Korean war, Columbia University Press, New York, p.50, 170):

 “The Chinese have for years been subjected to repeated attacks, territorial violations and financial sanctions. On the threshold of misery they had to face their own Golgotha of the coolies. The reversal of roles between victims and perpetrators should not surprise us, it is an integral part of colonial ideology. The accusations are mainly directed against China, where in the footsteps of the Shanghai signing, the war against Korea is being waged by the United States with a derogatory attitude towards an inferior nation, as the American chroniclers recognize”.

The connection that exists between the ideologies of a seemingly outdated past and the ideologies of the war that is being promoted by the USA today and anticipated by the movie is unambiguous. There is subtle but very detailed criticism of Americanism in it.  The directors show us the military leader of a people who have taken on the pre-eminent honorary duty of having a leading role while other peoples must compromise and follow it forever. That portrayal instantly nullifies the very idea of equality and democracy in the field of international relations that USA is pretending to defend. The visual and script choices of the movie encapsulate the past and present warlike ideology of China’s enemy,. It is an enemy full of arrogance that thinks it has been entrusted with an unquestionable mission to implement “democracy and the free market” in every part of the world, even with the power of arms. The film exposes this as a lie and presents and exposes how the empire is pretending that the whole history of colonialism is a history of guaranteeing order, stability and peace.. At the end of the movie we read the closing titles: “Our brave soldiers completely shattered MacArthur’s presumptuous plan to end the War before Christmas. It was the Greatest Setback in the history of the Marine corps”.

An informed viewer can clearly see the movie’s anti-imperialist premise:  The USA was technologically superior but lost because its cause is irrational, based on inequality and obscurantism. On the contrary the People’s Volunteer Army of China is portrayed as rationally and ethically organised despite its technological disadvantages. The people’s army has common forms of external discipline with other armies of the world, but there are deep differences internally that arise from the basic perception of society. The principle of equality prevails between officers and soldiers, which is not only realised in terms of form – for example in joint meals. Military training, as we see in the film where the protagonist’s younger brother becomes a man through a series of lessons taught by members of his team and mostly on the battlefield, is a technically, tactically and politically based on mutual assistance and cooperation.

The end of the film emerges as a triumph of a socialist culture of collaboration, collective sacrifice and of all the characteristics of socialist China. It is the best answer to the ‘legacy’ of war and destruction that an American soldier boasts about in a scene; it is instead a legacy of triumphant humanism.

Chinese policy fighting Historical Nihilism

The Washington Post clearly finds this statement of triumphant humanism unpalatable and rushed to report that: “strong official support has made it taboo to strongly criticize the movie. Chinese police have arrested commentators who questioned the film’s vainglorious portrayal of a military campaign in which, by official counts, nearly 200,000 Chinese died, including 4,000 who froze to death at Lake Changjin” (op.cit.).

BBC news Asia also claimed that: “criticism could land one in jail, like former journalist Luo Changping who was detained for making ‘insulting comments’ on social media about the Chinese soldiers portrayed in the movie.”

Police in Sanya said that he was being held on the charge of ‘infringing the reputation and honour of national martyrs’, and that the case was being investigated.

Youngsters [in China] with strong nationalist feelings have a disproportionate voice online. In part, this voice is amplified because legitimate criticism of the state is increasingly unacceptable”, said the BBC in an effort to downplay the authenticity of Chinese patriotism and people’s loyalty to the Communist Party.

The offence of the journalist in question consisted of an insolent play of words posted online. Instead of using the term “company of frozen ice sculptures” (bingdiao-lian) to describe the soldiers portrayed in the movie, who froze to death in the battle (which took place in freezing-cold temperatures) as looking like ice sculptures, he used the term “company of sand sculptures” (shadiao-lian). In China, the term “sand sculptures” (shadiao) has taken on the Internet-slang meaning of “foolish person” or “idiot.”

President Xi was of course accused of being behind such arrests and of controlling or censoring the historical narrative, but in reality what is consciously censored by the CPC is imperialist distortion posing as alternative narratives and criticism.

According to China’s law, the aforementioned journalist was denounced as engaging in an act of “historical nihilism,”

President Xi  has stated:

Recently domestic and foreign hostile forces have often written falsely about China’s revolutionary history and New China’s history, doing their utmost to attack, defame, and slander it, with the ultimate aim of causing confusion in people’s hearts, inciting the overthrow of the Communist Party leadership and Our Country’s Socialist System… Think back: Why did the Soviet Union disintegrate? Why did the Communist Party of the Soviet Union collapse? A major reason is the wholesale denial of Soviet history, of Soviet Communist history, a denial of Lenin, denial of Stalin, committing historical nihilism — and confusing [people’s] thoughts (from the Reader of Xi Jinping’s series of important speeches: ‘The only way to develop China and stabilize China. On upholding and developing socialism with Chinese characteristics’ (source: People’s Daily online).

China succeeds

The goal of propaganda movies, as filmmakers like Ivens remind us, is not just to disrupt some conventional rituals of communication and reception but to inspire and encourage people to act out the revolutionary consequences of their convictions; this is the ultimate reason for political art and not just to politicise all art content in an academic manner in university departments, without consequences in the real world. We would like to think that, just as it is impossible to erase the deep links of the Soviet and Chinese anti-revisionist past from their cinematic agitation tradition, it would be equally impossible for the young generations to forget and stay apathetic to the challenges of imperialism that their grandfathers faced so valiantly.

China succeeds to rally the people on the basis of retrospection to an era when the international political situation did not favour contradictory messages, or personal introspection, but objective reality. It is again an era when China needs a clear message and an accessible rallying call to its people to defend their collective achievements.  In our view, this movie delivers it with technical mastery and commercial aplomb.