Film review: The Battle at Lake Changjin

The following review was written by Friends of Socialist China co-editor Keith Bennett.

The Battle at Lake Changjin, directed by Chen Kaige, Tsui Hark and Dante Lam, premiered at the Beijing International Film Festival on 21 September 2021 and was released in China on 30 September. As part of its international distribution, it has been showing at selected cinemas in Britain, Ireland, the USA and Canada since 19 November and in Australia since 2 December. With a budget of some US$200 million, it is the most expensive Chinese film ever made. However, the acclaim with which it has been received has also made it the highest grossing film of 2021, the highest grossing film in Chinese history and the highest grossing non-English language film.

At just two minutes under three hours in length, the film is a revolutionary epic, with the main action centred around the Changjin Lake area of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) in the bitterly cold winter of 1950, shortly after the Chinese People’s Volunteer Army (CPVA) had entered the War to Resist US Aggression and Aid Korea. Confronted with the harshest natural and climatic conditions, forced to survive on starvation rations, and faced with an enemy that was better trained, better equipped, better fed, better armed and with complete mastery of the skies, the Chinese troops “fearing neither hardship nor death”, to use the well-known Chinese expression, continue to forge ahead in the most courageous and ingenious of ways. Armed with the element of surprise, and although making the ultimate sacrifice, by successfully blowing up the Shuimen Bridge, they score the most decisive victory ultimately ensuring the achievement of China’s objectives in the war.

A great strength of the film is how it weaves into a seamless whole the grand politics of national leadership and vital decisions of war and peace with the lives, sentiments and aspirations of the masses of poor and working people, those who Chairman Mao always insisted were the real heroes. We see Mao addressing his comrades and arguing his case. We see him absorbed in contemplation. We see his close comradely relations with the CPVA commander Peng Dehuai (something that tragically was not to survive the later twists and turns of the revolution) and we see the interplay between Mao Zedong, his son Mao Anying and Peng. Already a seasoned revolutionary in his own right, Anying is determined to be among the first to volunteer for the Korean front. Peng tries his best to dissuade him. He doesn’t want the Chairman to be left without his son. But Anying cannot accept that his family should not make the same sacrifices that countless other families throughout China would make. It is Mao Zedong who tells Peng to “let him go”, not because he doesn’t love his son, but because he loves all the sons and daughters of the Chinese working people – something that recalls Stalin’s attitude when his son was held a prisoner of war by the Nazis and which reputedly originally inspired the title of Arthur Miller’s 1946 play ‘All my Sons’.

This interplay may be said to constitute a bridge to the depiction of the mass of Chinese people in war and revolution. The film begins with People’s Liberation Army soldier Wu Qianli returning to join his illiterate parents and younger brother in their home village in Zhejiang province and carrying an urn containing the ashes of his other brother Wu Baili, who has fallen as a revolutionary martyr. Although Qianli will return to the army, he assures his worried mother, who has already lost one son, that the war is over and there are no more battles to be fought. As a result of land reform, the family have been given a modest amount of land as their own and Qianli’s great dream and plan is to build there a home fit for his parents to live in.

However, he has scarcely reached home before he is called to leave at once for Korea. Again relating the vital questions of international politics to the daily concerns and needs of the people, the point is made that those who have at last gained their own home and land must now fight to repel those who would come and take it away. In a separate scene, Mao opines that the country has only just been liberated. There is so much to do to build a new China. He doesn’t want to fight another war at this time. But if, he presciently observes, this war brings China decades or even a century of peace, then it will be worth it. Moreover, Mao observes, by sending its military forces to Taiwan, the US has already committed aggression against China.

Later, in the terrible conditions of battle, the soldiers console themselves with the thought that their sacrifice will mean that their children will not need to endure the horrors of conflict. They will enjoy a better life in peace. For this reviewer, it was a touching vindication of that to be able watch the film in a cinema in London’s West End, with an audience otherwise made up of young students from China.

Much of the film’s human story is centred on the relationship between Wu Qianli and his younger brother Wu Wanli. Wanli’s brothers are a people’s army soldier and a revolutionary martyr, whilst, at least initially, he is a mischievous, somewhat ill-disciplined, but in reality quite naïve peasant boy, who starts out by thinking that war is some kind of adventure or game. Qianli is horrified that Wanli has sneaked away to enlist together with him. Wanli’s progression from naïve teenager to heroic soldier and revolutionary, and not just in a military sense, but for example in learning to write a self-criticism, in a sense recalls the evolution of Pavel Korchagin in the classic Soviet novel ‘How the Steel was Tempered’. Towards the end, it is noted that the Wan in Wanli means ten thousand, indicating that his example will be followed by countless revolutionary successors.

The developing relationship between Qianli and some of his closest comrades, on the one hand, and Wanli on the other plays out against the lives and interactions of the company as a whole. The good natured ribbing conceals but also highlights and nurtures a deep camaraderie characterised by a willingness to sacrifice for others, both for the person next to you and for the wider cause, a profound humanism and a genuine comradely love. The resulting political synthesis of revolutionary heroism and class hatred, of patriotism and proletarian internationalism, becomes the living embodiment of Chairman Mao’s great call to Resist America, Aid Korea, Safeguard the Motherland and Defend our Homes.  

The film provides a vivid, intense and at times harrowing depiction of just what it means to fight with next to nothing against almost insuperable and apparently hopeless odds – in exposed terrain at the mercy of US bombers and in temperatures that often fall to more than minus 40 degrees centigrade, compounded by a lack of food and adequate warm clothing. And to triumph in the face of such adversity. There is a poignant contrast between the lavish Thanksgiving dinner enjoyed by the US troops at their base with the Chinese volunteers attempting to ward off starvation with a handful of small, rotten and undercooked or raw potatoes – sharing with each other what very little they had. But no amount of roast turkey with all the trimmings can obscure the dawning realisation that Douglas MacArthur’s boast, seen towards the start of the film, of victory by Thanksgiving and home by Christmas was not going to materialise. The note of caution raised at the start, that behind Kim Il Sung stood Mao Zedong and Stalin, was arrogantly dismissed with chauvinistic deprecation of peasant fighters. But the history of the twentieth century is in major part a history of Asian peasants fighting and defeating US imperialism and its stooges – in China, Korea, Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia. They were often equipped with the most rudimentary of weapons. But they were also equipped with the most advanced revolutionary science of Marxism-Leninism and the leadership of a communist party.  Of course, both the fact that China chose to make this film at this time, and the fact of its phenomenal box office success, is not unrelated to the New Cold War unleashed by imperialism against China and other socialist and anti-imperialist countries – a cold war that, just as it did in Korea in 1950, can all too easily become an outright military conflict. However, for Asian workers and peasants in power, the days of fighting with rudimentary weapons are over. The People’s Republic of China and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea are both proud nuclear powers, ready and able to defend their independence, sovereignty and socialist gains, as Malcolm X memorably put it, “by any means necessary”.

It should not be the job of a reviewer to say too much about a film’s ending, but suffice to mention that even a US commander is finally moved to salute the courage of the CPVA troops and to opine that it is impossible to prevail against men with such a degree of motivation. This symbolism brought to mind the words of Comrade Fidel Castro, speaking about Bobby Sands and his fellow hunger strikers in the north of Ireland: “Let tyrants tremble before men who are prepared to face death after more than 60 days without food.”

A sequel entitled Water Gate Bridge is reportedly in the works, which will feature some of the same stars, like Wu Jing and Jackson Yee. This film will also centre on troops from the same CPVA company as they take on a new task, with their battlefield this time being a bridge crucial to the retreat of US troops.

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