Film Review: The Battle at Lake Changjin
by Nina Kosta and George Korkovelos
Chinese propaganda and the fight against US Imperialism, Socialist legacies in today’s context
A Chinese war film was the biggest blockbuster of 2021, outpacing the latest James Bond movie. The Battle at Lake Changjin is an epic war film commissioned by the Communist Party of China and reportedly the most expensive film that has ever been created in the country, with a budget of about $200 million. It is the first time that a Chinese home-grown production has outperformed Hollywood movies, in market and profit-making terms. It is a collective directorial project, co-directed by three people: Chen Kaige, Hark Tsui and Dante Lam and headlined by seasoned actor Wu Jing and Jackson Yee who is not as experienced but extremely popular with Chinese youth.
The film was disparaged as a mere propaganda movie by the Western press but also criticised as “less of a piece of entertainment and more like a front of the ongoing geopolitical conflict between China and the US”, according to The Indian Express of 30 November 2021. A close study of what makes a propaganda movie is necessary to be able to grasp the function and effectiveness of this movie in today’s context.
Agitation is the strategy of persuading with optimism and we see this kind of agitation coming out of China right now, even if some do not like it, do not understand it or look down at it as a method of shortcutting and crude presentation based on mythologising and emotionalism. Viewers and commentators who focus on the purely aesthetic independently of the political, and failing to use a dialectical understanding between form and content, are not equipped to understand the remit of contemporary Chinese agitation let alone see the links with the socialist realism of the Soviet Union. However, we see it as a task for Marxist-Leninists to study more closely the cultural output of China today and to research the hypothesis that there is continuity with and recourse to solid and tested political and social processes still alive in the production, distribution and reception of propaganda works.
The film is set during the War to Resist US Aggression and Aid Korea (1950-53) and it depicts the Chinese People’s Volunteers soldiers’ brave fight in a key campaign at Lake Changjin, or Chosin Reservoir, in freezing temperatures. The 17-day battle occurred in late 1950, shortly after the People’s Republic of China joined the war in support of North Korea. This was the first battle ever in the Cold War era where the American and Chinese troops faced off against each other officially.
The Korean War drew permanent cracks in US-China relations, which have become starker in the past few years.
The film celebrates the valour of the Chinese troops showing how, despite the odds, 120,000 Chinese troops encircled and attacked the US forces and their allies. It has been hailed as a turning point in the battle which helped to prevent North Korea falling under the tutelage of the United States, as had the south of Korea after the defeat of Korea’s Japanese colonisers in the Second World War..
The film follows a unit of the People’s Volunteer Army as it travels by train then on foot to the Chinese / North Korean border to attack the American enemy (who have superiority of both numbers and quality of equipment) and ultimately drive them back, at the cost of great, heroic personal sacrifice. The stage is set for the scenario of the competent commander of a unit, the 7th company, having to look after his untrained brother, a clever device to which most audiences of whatever culture are likely to be able to relate and which drives the film narrative from here on in as it traverses various journeys and battles. The younger brother is initially teased by his more seasoned fellow soldiers, but is told that once he’s been in combat on the battlefield, he’ll really be a soldier just like everyone else.
Chinese film industry
As a socially significant mass medium of education, propaganda, and entertainment, Chinese cinema did not receive the international attention it deserved because of the deep-rooted political hostility to communism, which viewed Chinese cinema produced under the socialist regime as a tool for brainwashing.
Under Mao, the film industry in the People’s Republic of China (PRC) was under direct control of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). Socialist cinema was first of all an important tool of propaganda. Both its economic value and entertainment function were less important. However, the reforms in the Chinese film industry since 1984 resulted in an excessive development of entertainment productions, especially martial arts films, which was obviously a profit driven phenomenon. In order to stress the propaganda function of cinema, in 1986, the CCP government borrowed zhuxuanlii, originally a musical term meaning ‘main melody’ or ‘leitmotif’, to set out official guidelines for filmmaking. As this new term connotes, entertainment productions can be permitted only when the mainstay of the filmmaking continues to be films that promote the Party leadership and socialism.
Such films are either produced with financial backing by the government or sanctioned by governmental film awards. Compared with other domestic productions, ‘main melody’ films have always been given the best screening times. Some of them were extremely popular and well received by Chinese audiences. In terms of thematic motifs, ‘main melody’ films also display a rich variety; important motifs include: the revolutionary history of the CCP, socialist development after 1949, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA).
Products of centralised political action:
Chinese films such as The Battle at Lake Changjin are products of careful planning and form a totality politically and in terms of subject matter, like other militant film series produced in the Soviet Union (for example Yuri Ozerov’s series in 1970s). These are ideological counter-attacks against the main enemy, the USA, calling for resistance against the inhuman and people-hating dominance of imperialism.
In March 1996, the National Filmmakers’ Conference was held in Changsha. At this conference, the pedagogical function and social impact of cinema were addressed. A new production plan was issued for the next five years, requiring 10 successful main melody films per year. In order to protect the national film industry, the Conference also mandated a quota that two thirds of screening time should be reserved for domestic productions. Before 1996, China Film assumed the sole responsibility in importing and distributing foreign films in China. In order to encourage studios to produce more successful main melody films, the Chinese Ministry of Radio, Film and Television issued a new policy for film distribution. According to this new policy, if a studio produced a successful main melody film, it would be rewarded with the right to distribute an imported blockbuster (Zhu Ying. ‘Chinese Cinema’s Economic Reform from the mid-1980s to the mid-1990s’, Journal of Communication, December 2002,: 905-21,920),
The Battle at Lake Changjin is not the first film of its kind, of course, but is connected to a long list of two-part series and trilogies about China’s illustrious history of war for national liberation, such as director Li jun’s The Great Decisive War (1992), the 2-episode Dazhuanzhe (The Great Turning Point, 1996), and the 4-episode Dajinjun (The Great Military Advance, 1996-1999).
To understand the roots of this type of Chinese propaganda film, one should study the Soviet film output, not only for its ideological and artistic merits, but because the Soviet Union was ‘China’s big brother’, as the editor of Chinese film magazine Dazhong Dianying put it back in 1950, summarising the role of Soviet film in Chinese culture. Soviet film, like Soviet literature provided socialist heroes and heroines through whom the Chinese could envision their future. The Soviet Union, as an established socialist nation, provided China with models of socialist development in all realms: cultural, social, economic, and political (Hongmei Yu, “The politics of images: Chinese cinema in the context of globalisation”, 2008). Soviet film provided visual imagery, language, and a comparative framework central to Chinese self-understanding. As Soviet and Chinese leadership understood the importing and exporting of film to each other, and its concomitant mass circulation, to be crucial to their shared struggle against imperialism and capitalism, international cultural exchange shaped popular Chinese conceptualisations of self, nation, and history. Chinese films should not be studied as isolated from such historical influences and ideological foundations.
Famous Soviet director Sergei Eisenstein made his film Aleksandr Nevsky to show how the Russian people had triumphantly stood up to a Teutonic invader as a warning before his country faced an actual invasion from the Nazis. For much the same reason, one can argue that the CCP is now promoting a movie showing the American Army as enemy, as it prepares itself for possible future confrontation.
For a full understanding of the functions of the film The Battle at Lake Changjin, it is deemed useful to study film-makers like Joris Ivens (1898-1989) who worked in the Soviet Union from 1929 and made propaganda movies on the work for Stalin’s 5 year plan, who witnessed the socialist building of China after the communist revolution, got to know the needs of the people and understood the necessity to subject his work as a film expert to those needs. His films reflect the reality of imperialist neo-colonial concentration of power and the rise of the oppressed peoples’ struggle for national and social liberation. He worked in a period when there was a struggle in the international peace movement, between pacifist positions and Marxist-Leninist understandings of the question of war like the one Stalin condensed by saying that “In order to do away with the inescapability of wars, imperialism must be crushed”.
Soviet film propaganda: filmic devices and techniques
Ivens discovered that there are three levels of film editing (montage) that correspond to the movement from the perception of reality to the recognition of political truth, and he said that a political film-maker needs to know them in order for his work to be convincing. The simple visual ordering of the material follows a cycle that takes into account psychological and emotional factors and connects the objectivity of that which has been perceived with the subjectivity of the person who perceived it (in the film, we see this in the presentation of the relation between the two brothers at the start of the story). In the third level, Ivens said that the editing shapes the emotional perspective within a personal, social and political stance. (One sees all these levels in the film and understands that the emotional impact stems from the presentation of personal psychology merged with the objective and historical- seen as a unity).
Brechtian distancing and educational function
Ivens’ film 400 millions, shot in China in the 1960s, refers to the significance of the 8th army with images similar to those of The Battle in Lake Chanjing where we see movement representations on a map like in a contemporary news broadcast or a history documentary, to explain the military tactics of the communists and their lightning attacks and show the tight clustering of soldiers from the PLA. Such devices are also used in the movie The Battle and they have a long lineage traced back to Bertolt Brecht and his epic theatre techniques. These techniques aimed at an educational function of theatre as opposed to the illusion of bourgeois drama. Brecht insisted on a theatre narration that is told in montage style instead of a naturalistic imitation of real time. It can be argued that the movie employs sudden cuts between episodes that aim at disrupting the mere consumption of the film as entertainment and instead interrupts the illusion or even the immersion that is aimed at in other parts of the film, where it serves the political message. Some western viewers, unaware of such lineage in the genre of socialist propaganda, might ignorantly attribute these sudden cuts to bad editing or to the difficulties of collaborating between the three directors and failing to create a seamless unity of style. We would argue that on the contrary such techniques are in line with the tradition of Brechtian distancing that aims to breakdown the fourth wall and make the audience conscious of the fact that they are watching and being educated by a film.
TO BE CONTINUED