The Battle of the Chosin Reservoir was a legendary showdown during the Korean War that pitted 30,000 American, British, and South Korean fighters against a Chinese force of more than 120,000. A new movie, titled The Battle at Lake Changjin, recounts the struggle from the Chinese perspective and is currently smashing box office records. But the nationalistic war flick is just the latest in a growing trend of ultrapatriotic Chinese war movies.
As of Monday, Oct. 11, the movie has raked in $633.2 million since its premiere on Sept. 30, putting it on track to become the world’s biggest movie of 2021. The Battle at Lake Changjin depicts the brawl as a major Chinese victory that stopped the American advance across the Korean peninsula and led to the standing stalemate at the 38th parallel.
The Battle at Lake Changjin is the latest in a succession of Chinese war movies to see monumental success at the box office. Beginning with Wolf Warrior in 2015, China has pumped out at least one massively successful war movie each year. With its heavy reliance on explosions and hip-fired machine guns, Wolf Warrior stands as China’s counter to America’s Rambo. Its success was followed in 2016 by Operation Mekong, a special effects-driven celebration of Chinese military might.
The following year saw two more major war movies dominate the Chinese box office. The sequel to Wolf Warrior, Wolf Warrior 2, remains the highest-grossing Chinese film of all time. Two months later, the aerial combat movie Sky Hunter hit theaters. The Chinese Air Force paired with filmmakers to produce the Top Gun-like action movie. While using the entertainment industry to recruit is not a new idea (looking at you, Act of Valor), the Air Force’s involvement in Sky Hunter reveals just how close to propaganda Chinese war movies are becoming.
China’s fourth-highest-grossing film of all time is another movie intended to romanticize war. Released in 2018, Operation Red Sea pits Chinese naval commandos against terrorists in a high-stakes rescue mission that highlights the capabilities of Chinese special operations. A year later, My People, My Country, a seven-part dramatization of the founding of the People’s Republic of China, hit theaters. The trailer is nothing more than three minutes of people saluting the Chinese flag with tears streaming down their faces. The film was released in time to celebrate the 70th anniversary of the founding of the current Chinese government and became the country’s seventh-highest-grossing film of all time.
Then, in 2020, China’s second-highest-grossing film of the year was also a hyperpatriotic war movie: The Eight Hundred. It tells the story of the Battle of Shanghai, a suicidal last stand against the Japanese during the Second Sino-Japanese War.
It’s a jingoistic portrayal that likens the Chinese defeat to the infamous 300 Spartans at Thermopylae. Despite the engagement being a sweeping Japanese victory, the film spins the events into an inspiring story by combining slow-motion scenes of slaughter with lines like “Devoting oneself to one’s country is an honor,” and “When our kids grow up, they shall join the army to avenge their father.”
Given the alarming pattern of flag-waving war movies, The Battle at Lake Changjin’s early success comes as no surprise. Expected to earn $830 million before leaving theaters, the one-sided recounting of the battle is just the latest in the Chinese military’s transparent march to the top of the box office.