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Korean War Epic’s Massive Success in China Should Worry Hollywood

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The latest evidence that China’s theaters are no longer reliant on Hollywood blockbusters to draw crowds: The Chinese war epic The Battle At Lake Changjin has brought in 534 million USD since hitting silver screens on September 30, according to Chinese ticketing platform Maoyan. It has reportedly smashed 14 Chinese box office records in the process.

Projections for the film’s total haul continue being revised upwards, with some expecting the film to earn a total of 812 million USD.

The movie chronicles the experiences of Chinese troops during the 17-day Battle of Chosin Reservoir — one of the significant battles of the Korean War, better known in China (and this may come as a surprise to some Westerners) as the War to Resist US Aggression and Aid Korea. 

Wu Jing and Jackson Yee

Wu Jing and Jackson Yee star in The Battle at Lake Changjin

Battle At Lake Changjin stars China’s very own Sylvester Stallone — Wolf Warrior’s Wu Jing — and Jackson Yee of TFBoys fame, and was directed by all-star filmmakers Chen Kaige (Farewell My Concubine), Tsui Hark (the Once Upon a Time in China series) and Dante Lam (Operation Red Sea, the second-highest-grossing Chinese film to date).

By most accounts, the film is a pretty standard war film. Sure, it’s no Saving Private Ryan or Dunkirk, but numerous pundits have praised it for spectacular set pieces, numerous mass battle reenactments, and impressive stunt work. Film industry analyst Scott Mendelson writes in Forbes

“There’s a mid-movie sequence that just transitions for around 28 minutes from one kind of peril (tank fights!) to another (knife fights!) with a remarkable relentlessness that would make George Miller nod in approval.”

Debuting the day before China’s National Day holiday, its release could not have been more opportunely timed. (Mao Zedong proclaimed the founding of the People’s Republic of China on October 1, 1949, and the annual celebration comes with as much revelry as Independence Day in the US.) The film has been able to capitalize on the patriotic fever that has swept China since the outbreak of Covid-19 and the ratcheting up of US-China tensions. 

“The popularity of The Battle at Lake Changjin fits the rising national sentiment in the constant rivalry between China and the US,” Xiao Fuqiu, a Shanghai-based film critic, told state-backed publication Global Times.

Battle of Chosin Reservoir

The Battle at Lake Changjin chronicles the experiences of Chinese troops facing off against UN forces during the Battle of Chosin Reservoir

The film’s roaring success is notable for several reasons. It has already blown past the global totals of summer Hollywood blockbuster Free Guy (324 million USD) and Tenet (363 million USD), the first Hollywood offering post-Covid-19.

It has also surpassed Marvel Studio’s first Asian-led film, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, which has brought in just over 389 million USD worldwide since its early September release.

Battle At Lake Changjin’s total take so far has even surpassed last year’s top-grossing movie, another Chinese war epic, The Eight Hundred (461 million USD). Although, this comparison is less relevant due to the impact of Covid-19 on cinemas in most markets in 2020.

Most telling, three of the world’s top five highest-grossing films of 2021 are from China: Hi, Mom leads the pack at 822 million USD, Detective Chinatown 3 sits in third with 686 million USD, and Battle At Lake Changjin is in the fourth spot. Hollywood blockbusters F9: The Fast Saga (716 million USD) and Godzilla vs. Kong (467 million USD) are second and fifth, respectively. (This may yet change, though, with the upcoming releases of the highly-anticipated Dune and the fourth film in the Matrix series, The Matrix Resurrections.)

Sure, it’s fair to note that Chinese cinemas have been open with a few exceptions since the end of July of 2020, while theaters in many Western nations (and globally, for that matter) are still in recovery mode following pandemic-induced lockdowns. The Chinese market has had a chance to truly thrive and stand on its own while Hollywood pictures have been continually delayed or forced to find novel release methods (see Mulan on Disney+ for reference).

Still, the continued success of domestically made films in China should give Hollywood pause: It appears Chinese audiences don’t necessarily need Hollywood, but with a population of 1.4 billion people, it’s difficult to argue that Hollywood doesn’t need them.

All images via IMDb

Matthew Bossons
Matt is RADII's managing editor. He is a Shanghai-based writer and editor with a passion for history, untold stories and scuba diving. Originally from Vancouver, Canada, Matt has worked as a journalist in China for over half a decade and has had work published in major Chinese media outlets and international publications. He has previously lived in Guangzhou and Beijing.