Wednesday, December 01, 2021

The Battle at Lake Changjin

It's an odd feeling to sit in a Boston theater for a Chinese movie and hear folks in the audience applaud as the subtitled text talks about "our" army defeating the Imperialist Americans. Sure, I knew what I was getting into when I got a ticket for this movie, but on a certain level I figure that if someone is watching this movie in Boston Common a week before Thanksgiving rather than a time and place closer to its National Day opening in the People's Republic of China, they more or less chose to be here rather than there, or at least their parents did. Maybe there are a lot of disillusioned ABCs out there, or maybe it's just a lot of Chinese students that figure Boston schools look good on the résumé, even back home.

Obviously, I was going to see it - after all, I would have been at the theater for anything Tsui Hark, Dante Lam, or Chen Kaige did individually! There's also the sheer curiosity factor in terms of how this will probably be the 2021 box office champ for the planet, even if one looks somewhat askance at some of the ticket sales. There were, I gather, a lot of suggested office team-building excursions and general "you've got to see this movie - no, we mean you've got to see this movie!" contributing to the total. Obviously, 99% or more of that is going to be in from Mainland China, because I don't know that this travels much beyond expatriates.

It's kind of amusing that it wound up getting released the weekend before Thanksgiving, not just because it would be a five-day week for something bookers and distributors figured had limited appeal, but because there's mockery of American GIs whining while gorging themselves at Thanksgiving while Chinese soldiers are starving and freezing not far away. Intentional, or just an amusing coincidence.

Anyway, it might still be playing at Boston Common this weekend, if down to one show a day. There's a half-decent Tsui Hark movie in there, I think, and the video-game-villain MacArthur is just a weird sight. It's not exactly the Korean folks behind Operation Chromartie hiring Liam Neeson!

Zhang Jin Hu (The Battle at Lake Changjin)

* * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 21 November 2021 in AMC Boston Common #8 (first-run, DCP)

A few years back, someone wrote the amusing line that China was making a lot of "Call of Duty movies", referring to the popular series of military-action games even if it also clearly applies to the films' themes. Both fit; Dante Lam, in particular, has become known for these blockbuster productions that are clearly propaganda but also so capably made with fairly universal themes that one can enjoy them somewhat as an American fan of the genre even knowing that the faceless enemy forces would be the heroes in a Hollywood production. The Battle at Lake Changjin is the biggest and most jingoistic yet to make it to American shores, with Lam joined by fellow A-list directors Chen Kaige and Tsui Hark, an all-star cast, a massive budget and three-hour running time, along with very little approaching nuance.

As it begins, officer Wu Qianli (Wu Jing) is returning home on leave from the 7th Company of the 9th Corps of the People's Volunteer Army with the ashes of brother Baili. Most of his action has been in the Sino-Japanese war and the later battles with nationalist forces, but now those wars are all but over and he looks forward to retiring and helping to build a real house on the land that his family of boat-dwellers has been allocated when discharged the next year. Intense discussions are already underway in Beijing, though, as leader Mao Zedong and the generals of the PVA see America's entry to the Korean War as a threat. Generals Ping He (Han Dongjun) and Song Shilun (Zhang Hanyu) are put in charge of the Chinese response, and Qianli is called back to action. To his chagrin, his younger brother Wanli (Jackson Yee) enlists and tags along, so Qianli places Wanli in the charge of Lei Jusheng (Hu Jun), the artilleryman who trained him, as they march toward the Chosin Reservoir (or, as the Chinese call it, "Lake Changjin") and a confrontation with the ruthless, better-equipped American army.

If forced to guess who was in charge of which parts of the movie (keeping in mind that there's no subtitled on-screen indication and that three lesser-known co-directors are listed alongside the big names), I'd peg Chen Kaige as being in charge of the first leg. He's done his fair share of action movies, but they tended to be of the "respected director does a prestige wuxia" variety that sprang up in the wake of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. The opening segment is full of broad motivating elements, most notably the pastoral beauty of QIanli chatting with the boatman as they drift down the river, amber-green light cast upon the landscape, his village technically poor but full of tradition.and Chinese pride. It's contrasted with scenes of the US Navy off the coast of Incheon launching devastating, indiscriminate missile strikes. There's no particular flaw in the visual effects work, but the "Call of Duty movie" line feels apt here; it feels like a cut-scene, precise and mechanical and not-quite-real even if there's no obvious flaws. The scenes showing Douglas MacArthur often seem to be in their own uncanny valley, with actor James Filbird shot from odd angles and his face seemingly airbrushed to make him seem like a wax figure reciting lines from the historical record. There's more emotion to the scenes where Mao and his advisors discuss what must be done, though there's still a timidity and toeing of the line there, like scenes where there would normally be palace intrigue and uncertainty have been replaced with calm solemnity.

I similarly can't be sure that the middle act belongs to Tsui Hark, but it seems like it might be his; even when doing blockbusters targeting the less-freewheeling Mainland, the Hong Kong legend seemingly can't help but have fun making movies, and a moment when the projectiles from two rocket launchers collide head-on is his kind of absurdity even as it happens in the middle of a tightly-staged action sequence. This section of the movie is full of familiar tropes but it works the best, with notes of gallows humor to sharpen the patriotic material and take the edge off the despairing, All of these filmmakers know how to frame a shot and set a pace, and that's most plainly visible here from an American attack on the train carrying Qianli's company to a supply run that turns into a massive battle. It may be familiar but it's crisp, and this stretch gets the best out of star Wu Jing: He can still hold his own in the action, but the gruff commander who can't favor his kid brother too much suits him; he's developing a screen persona that's more than just his pure screen-fighting prowess in these movies.

If this had just been The Road to Lake Changjin and the movie ended with Battle due in a month or two akin to some of the two-part Chinese epics from a few years ago (such as John Woo's Red Cliff), the film might have been in pretty good shape, but there's still something like an hour of movie to go at this point, and that's not a great time to have peaked. There's less time for character-building beyond Wanli having grown the nerve to stab an American in the face when he didn't have it in him before, with this the sort of movie where this only means he's gained something as opposed to losing some of his humanity as well. It's also the sort where American soldiers saying they want to go home as they're served Thanksgiving dinner is contrasted with dedicated Chinese ones trying to eat potatoes frozen to the consistency of rocks and the heavy-handedness brings some of the film's biggest laughter. The climactic engagement is less filled with over-the-top action than the ones in the middle section - there's likely less room to invent things here - but if this is Dante Lam's section, then that sequence is a fine demonstration of just how good he's gotten at directing action at multiple scales and marshalling effects to aid it.

There has been a lot of movie by that time, though, and even if one is down with the film's politics, it's been an inconsistent three hours. Even if each act has some personality, the film as a whole never feels like more than the very expensive propaganda piece that it is. It's likely some sort of miracle that The Battle at Lake Changjin holds together as well as it does, but not quite enough of one for the movie to be a genuine epic in terms of much more than length.

Also on eFilmCritic

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