The Battle at Lake Changjin (长津湖), the Chinese war epic that recently became the country’s top-grossing film of all time, tells the story of self-sacrificing volunteer soldiers who bravely take on American troops at the Battle of Chosin Reservoir during the Korean War. Commissioned by the Central Propaganda Department with a budget of over 200 million dollars, the film has been praised inside China as a milestone both for China’s film industry and for the telling of the “China story.”
But while The Battle at Lake Changjin may have been a domestic success, earning more than 895 million dollars by the end of November, it has seriously misfired internationally, and the self-congratulatory tone of much coverage inside China points to the continued myopia of the country’s media system when it comes to crafting stories the rest of the world can relate to.
Earlier this week, the Economic Daily, a central newspaper run by the State Council, hailed the fact that in a period of 10 days following its first screening in Hong Kong on November 11, The Battle at Lake Changjin had brought in more than 10 million Hong Kong dollars in ticket sales. Not only this, said the paper, but the film, which in mainland China had prompted emotional tributes, including a wave of frozen potato eating, had “continued to heat up overseas,” showing in Singapore, the United States and Canada.
In fact, the film’s reception could scarcely be called lukewarm. It made just over 577,000 US dollars on its opening in Hong Kong. Compare this to the saga of the Eternals, which raked in nearly 3.4 million US dollars on its Hong Kong opening in November. Even Anita, the story of the disappeared Hong Kong Cantopop star Anita Mui, topped 1.5 million US dollars on opening, dwarfing the CCP’s nationalistic blockbuster.
In Singapore, meanwhile, the film was not even listed for returns at Box Office Mojo, and taken altogether overseas numbers for the film, including in the US and the UK, were “puny,” as Variety has reported.
Writing at the Economic Daily, critic Zhang Tianqiao (姜天骄) was undeterred by such facts. That that The Battle at Lake Changjin had become a “phenomenal blockbuster,” he wrote, was “a sign that the Chinese story is deeply rooted in people’s hearts.” What is this story exactly? According to Zhang, the story is that the “war of aid to Korea” (援朝战争) – China’s official characterization of the Korean War – was great, and that “its greatness lies in the fact that the Chinese people fought for peace and justice.”
Building on the ostensible success of The Battle at Lake Changjin, said Zhang, the goal should be to continue exploring ways for Chinese films to “both represent [China’s] national characteristics and core culture and also be widely accepted by the world film market.”
“Making the Chinese story tug at the heartstrings of the world means finding a common narrative language with humanity,” Zhang Tianqiao wrote. Story lines, in other words, should be compelling, and at the same time reflect the “China’s story,” a phrase that has become synonymous under Xi Jinping with the global rollout of the CCP’s official line through modernized forms of “external propaganda.”
Modernizing domestic and external propaganda has been a project of many years for the CCP. And The Battle at Lake Changjin has made a number of innovations in this respect, building on previous experiments.
Like Wolf Warrior 2 (战狼2), the previous box office record holder with nationalistic credentials, the film offers fast-moving action sequences and a few impressive swooping camera scenes. But unlike Wolf Warrior 2, this latest “slice of nationalistic entertainment” also makes a clever appeal to younger audiences with its casting choices.
Apart from the leading role played by Wu Jing (吴京) – who directed and produced Wolf Warrior 2 – the film also stars Jackson Yee (易烊千璽), an actor, singer and performer who is among the most popular today with young audiences. Yee is a member of the Chinese teen idol group TFBoys, or “The Fighting Boys.” The casting of younger stars like Yee signals another important change in the nature of official CCP film production. Film producers, working closely with the CCP’s Central Propaganda Department, are exploring novel approaches to casting and marketing. In Yee’s case, his immense following as an idol can offer a convenient avenue for promoting the film.
On September 30, the day before the film’s National Day release, Yee promoted The Battle at Lake Changjin through his Weibo account. The post quickly received more than 1 million likes and reposts, and nearly 400,000 comments.
Like the Wolf Warrior films and Operation Red Sea (红海行动), a 2018 action war film, The Battle at Lake Changjin has helped to change the audience’s perception of “mainstream” films, meaning state productions aligning with the CCP line, as dull and doctrinaire. But it is only the latest culmination of a decades-long struggle to find novel ways to tell the CCP’s story.
It was at least as early as the National Film Work Conference in 1987 that the leadership introduced the idea of diversifying propaganda products. The phrase at the time was, “promoting the main melody, insisting on variety” (突出主旋律, 坚持多样化 ).” The term “main melody,” or zhuxuanlu (主旋律), is still used today by propaganda officials to assert the need to stick to the main political line, ensuring that the CCP leads the chorus.
Early in the Jiang Zemin era, the Central Propaganda Department initiated the so-called “Five Ones Project” (五个一工程), an awards program designed to encourage “innovation” in mainstream cultural production, including films, television programming, literature and music. The goal was essentially to convey the Party’s objectives, values and doctrines in cultural products that befitted an era of rising choice in the media, as foreign cultural products also became more readily available.
Throughout the Hu Jintao era this atmosphere of experimentation continued, one of the biggest changes being the increasing involvement of private sector investment in the production and distribution of “mainstream” films and TV shows. Films such as The Knot (云水谣), a “main melody” production set during the Chinese Civil War, and TV programs like Drawing Sword (亮剑), which tells the story of Li Yunlong, a commander of a regiment of the Eighth Route Army during the war of resistance against Japan, clearly showed the growing impact of private investors in productions. These films and television series were no longer the ponderous propaganda offerings of the past, but rather sought to blend more secular stories with broad appeal with so-called “socialist core values.”
Since the late 2000s there has been a greater emphasis on “cultural soft power” (文化软实力), the CCP leadership investing its hopes for greater credibility and influence overseas in the strength of Chinese cultural products. And since 2013, Xi Jinping has doubled down on this basic conviction, that China’s voice in the world must grow louder and stronger as a reflection of the country’s growing strength as a global power, and that this should be manifested in rising “cultural confidence” (文化自信).
The Battle for Global Audiences
State media and other official sources have relished The Battle at Lake Changjin as a prime example of China’s growing capacity for strong cultural products. Jun Zheng Ping (钧正平), an official Weibo account launched in July 2016 by the People’s Liberation Army, posted an article three days after the film’s release that said “the world’s recognition of the people’s army was far from sufficient,” and that this problem could be remedied through the medium of film. The article, “This Age Needs High-Quality National Military Films to Enter People’s Hearts and Head Out Into the World” (时代需要高质量国产军事电影走进人心走向世界), called the war scenes in The Battle at Lake Changjin “excellent,” and said that “the actors performed wonderfully.”
The Shanghai Observer (上观), an outlet run by Jiefang Daily, the official mouthpiece of the CCP leadership in Shanghai, said that the success of The Battle at Lake Changjin had demonstrated the vibrancy and vitality of the Chinese film industry, and had “shown the world the unique beauty of the China story.” The outlet was not wrong in claiming that a “Changjin Lake effect” (长津湖效应) had swept across mainland China. Some Chinese, after seeing the film, had visited the graves of these martyrs, laying down flowers. Some stands selling vegetables had reportedly posted signs that read, “Today we have plenty of potatoes,” a tribute to the hardships depicted in the film, including one scene in which the volunteer soldiers must eat frozen potatoes.
But many of the very elements that have made the film so appealing to audiences in mainland China, what Zhang Tianqiao hailed in the Economic Daily this week as an insistence on “national characteristics” and “core culture,” are the more or less direct causes of its failure overseas – a failure that commentators inside China seem ill equipped to recognize.
In the theory section of the latest edition of International Communications, a monthly journal on mass media published in China, two scholars from Ningbo University, Xin Hongjuan (辛红娟) and Meng Jialong (孟佳蓉), write that promoting the “going out” (走出去) of “red culture” (红色文化), a phrase referring to CCP-approved official PRC history and culture, is crucial to “telling China’s story well.”
From the outset of their summary, the two authors tacitly accept Xi Jinping’s external propaganda strategy as the frame with which to discuss international communications and its success or failure, and suitably they begin their paper with a reference to Xi Jinping’s remarks on “red resources” (红色资源) at the 31st collective study session of the Politburo on June 25, 2021.
The Battle at Lake Changjin, they say, “provides a good example of how to use film and television works as a vehicle to optimize the foreign communication of China’s red culture.” They conclude, on the basis apparently of a simple viewing of the film, that it “cleverly uses empathic communication, employing macro narratives to promote two-way empathy.” The result is to promote a clear image of the Chinese military as peace-loving and opposing war. Moreover, the film “contributes new ideas to promote the integration of Chinese civilization into the world civilization in a confident and positive manner.”
This faith in the film’s power of “empathic communication” is based in particular on two scenes in the film, which the author’s imagine must elicit sympathy from audiences everywhere.
In the first scene, soldier Wu Wanli, the brother of seventh company commander Wu Qianli (played by Wolf Warrior 2 director Wu Jing) is about to shoot an American officer and achieve his goal of killing 20 enemies, transforming himself into a “hero,” when Qianli stays his hand, saying: “There are some shots that must be fired, and others that can be left unfired.” In the second scene, an American commander named Smith comes across a group of Chinese volunteers frozen like ice sculptures, but maintaining their combat postures. He removes his hat and salutes the Chinese soldiers.
Xin and Meng accept out of hand that these scenes “promote two-way empathy,” that global audiences will take them as evidence of peace-loving goodwill. Here is their elementary thesis about how international communication can be achieved:
As a country with 5,000 years of civilization, China has its own national system, and its own discourse to express its values — for example, the socialist system with Chinese characteristics, the spirit of collectivism and communism, and so on. Western countries also have their own unique systems and values, including democratic republicanism, the supremacy of individualism and heroism, and so on. In order to foster empathy between these two sides having different cultures and ideologies, we must find the common emotions (共通情感) in both cultures. Respect for life, for example, is the basis for a natural dialogue between people in the East and the West.
Finding these points of “empathic communication,” the scholars conclude, can help to “break more barriers to the foreign dissemination of Chinese red culture.” But are Chinese scholars and strategists, including pundits at state media, looking critically at the real failure of how The Battle at Lake Changjin has been received in foreign countries?
The film has drawn overseas criticism for stretching the historical facts of the Battle of Chosin Reservoir. Malaysia turned the film away after online discontent over its role as CCP propaganda. Not only, South Korean critics said, did the film serve as a blatant propaganda, playing fast and loose with the facts, but its release was timed to accompany the 100th anniversary of Chinese Communist Party.
At the Rotten Tomatoes film review website, The Battle at Lake Changjinearned a green “splat,” receiving at 33 percent barely more than half the proportion of positive reviews it needed to earn a squishy tomato. The Guardian, which called it “straight-up propaganda,” bemoaned the lack of any coherent story at all. “It’s a shame there is virtually no story to sew this ungainly patchwork of styles together,” the critic Phil Hoad wrote, “apart from some threadbare twaddle about 7th Company commander Quanli (Wolf Warrior’s Wu Jing) and his wannabe soldier brother Wanli (Jackson Yee), as a stowaway who mostly exists for his comrades to impart self-sacrificing wisdom.”
Beyond its lack of coherence, said Hoad, the film had “worryingly belligerent overtones,” and seemed to revel in graphic violence. The critic likened a hand-to-hand combat scene in the American encampment to “a homicidal game of Twister.”
At The Hollywood Reporter, critic Elizabeth Kerr called the film “propagandist myth-making” that threw historical fact out the window. While Kerr said that the film “ticks all the boxes expected of a rousing slice of nationalist entertainment,” she concluded that “it’s not even trying for soft power” – a comment state media pundits should find painful given their insistence that the film is built to be an international sensation.
“There are no onscreen English credits, as if no one expected anyone outside the People’s Republic to watch,” Kerr wrote.
Kerr noted another very fundamental problem that those in China hoping to export “red culture” might take into consideration – the fact that The Battle at Lake Changjin is simply too long at a “butt-numbing three hours.” That might be fine for military die-hards, and for melodramatic audiences ready to mimic the sacrifices of the people’s volunteers, breaking their teeth on frozen potatoes. But when it comes to appealing to global audiences, it is one of many failings the CCP’s “red culture” promoters might do well to consider.