You may have heard that the biggest box office hit in the world right now is a Chinese film about the Korean war. The NY Times described the film this week as a $200 million spectacle in which Chinese troops are heroes and the US military are the villains.
“The Battle at Lake Changjin,” a blockbuster that depicts an against-all-odds defeat of the United States during the Korean War, has been smashing box office records since opening last week on the eve of China’s annual October holiday, known as Golden Week.
As a barometer of Chinese politics and culture, it feels very much a movie of the moment: aggrieved, defiant and jingoistic, a lavishly choreographed call to arms at a time of global crisis and increasingly tense relations with the world, especially the United States.
The villains are American soldiers and commanders, including a reasonable impersonation of Gen. Douglas MacArthur. The heroes are the Chinese “volunteers” hurled against what was then viewed as the world’s most invincible army.
The battle, better known in the United States as the Battle of Chosin Reservoir, drove the Americans and their allies out of North Korea in the winter of 1950, setting the stage for the stalemate that ended with a cease-fire three years later. It has entered Communist Party lore as an unvarnished triumph in the infancy of the People’s Republic of China, though it came at a terrible cost for the Chinese people.
Wikipedia has a detailed description of the battle of Chosin Reservoir. It was very much a mixed bag for China. A numerically superior Chinese force was sent into Korea to destroy the US forces surging north. They surrounded the US/UN forces but the US/UN forces broke out and retreated to a port where they were able to leave by ship. In the process the US side suffered about 17,000 casualties but over 100,000 men were able to leave and rejoin the war effort elsewhere. The Chinese army suffered close to 50,000 casualties (some say up to 60,000) and was completely out of commission for 3 months. So geographically this was a win for China, but numerically they suffered at least triple the losses.
More to the point, the eventual outcome of the stalemate the battle created was the division of the Korean Peninsula into a) a communist dictatorship in the north where people are starving and desperate to escape and b) a prosperous democracy in the south with a high standard of living. It’s a little hard to see how anyone could be celebrating the existence of North Korea at this point in time but I guess nationalist Chinese moviegoers don’t care.
In any case, today the NY Times reports that a former journalist has been arrested for daring to criticize the premise of the hit film. It turns out that’s illegal in China under a law against defaming “political martyrs.”
Luo Changping built a reputation as a muckraking journalist in China, a place where few dare pursue the calling, until he was forced out of the industry in 2014. Now a businessman, he has run afoul of the authorities again, this time over a critique spurred by a blockbuster movie about the Korean War.
The police detained Mr. Luo, 40, on Thursday, two days after he posted commentary on social media questioning China’s role in the war…
The authorities appeared to be trying to set an example with Mr. Luo’s arrest, which was highlighted by state media, including the main television network, CCTV. The arrest — and what appeared to be an orchestrated wave of outrage online — reflected the Communist Party’s prickliness about any efforts to challenge its version of history…
According to a police statement, Mr. Luo was charged under a new criminal code that took effect this year, making the defamation of political martyrs a crime.
China is clearly trying to ramp up the patriotic fervor and it’s not hard to imagine why. They are preparing the populace for an invasion of Taiwan. This film isn’t entertainment it’s internal propaganda designed to convince people a battle against the US is a good idea.
Here’s the trailer. All I can say is this doesn’t look like a $200 million film to me.