2 blockbusters fight a box office war across a U.S.-China political divide

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Editor’s note: While news media obsess over U.S.-China relations, a little-known conflict was just resolved. Spoiler alert: Looks like Hollywood won this one.

The battle over global box office receipts pitted a film leader you may never heard of — “The Battle at Lake Changjin” — against a Marvel superhero you surely have — Spider-Man. English lecturer Lei Jiao is uniquely positioned at her Wuhan University of Technology post in China to watch both films and offer her cross-cultural perspective.

As she did with “Mulan,” “Raya and the Last Dragon” and “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings,” Jiao teams up again with University of Kentucky journalism professor Buck Ryan in a Q&A film review. This time they double their pleasure as they dig deep into the making of “Changjin,” its battle with “Spider-Man: No Way Home,” and why their appeal put them No. 1 and No. 2 in global box office.

“Lei, with great power comes great responsibility.”

“Yes, Buck, that advice from Uncle Ben’s widow, Aunt May, applies to world superpowers, too — even in a proxy war.”

“What do you mean?”

“Well, the latest battleground between our two countries got played out at the box office — the ‘soft power’ of Hollywood versus China’s patriotic fervor.”

“Oh gee, I remember when the war movies I watched on CCTV in China celebrated victories over Japan. Now, it sounds like the U.S. is again the protagonist.”

“Yep.”

“Well, Lei, how popular can an anti-American film get?”

“Try world leader in box office receipts, Buck — at least until the other day.”

“How can that be?”

“Well for starters, China will be the worldwide box office champion for 2021, according to Variety, with $7 billion, or 39 percent of the global box office total.”

“Wait, how long has China led in worldwide box office receipts?”

“This will be the second year. The first time in history was 2020.”

“What about the U.S.?”

“Variety puts it second with $3.7 billion and a 21 percent share.”

“So, Lei, tell me about that anti-American film.”

“You mean the three-hour Chinese blockbuster ‘The Battle at Lake Changjin’!”

“Oh come on, Lei, I never heard of it.”

“Well, that’s because almost all of its $906 million in revenue came from ticket sales here in China, with its September 30 release date, making it the highest grossing film of 2021 as of December 27.”

“Then what happened?”

“Spider-Man happened.”

“You mean ‘Spider-Man: No Way Out’ got on a roll after its December 17 release date.”

“Yep again.”

“The Chinese film focuses on two weeks in 1950 of what your Korean War history books call the Battle of Chosin Reservoir in frozen late November to mid-December weather. There are authentic and impressive battle scenes, brutal images of gun and physical fights, even some humor, and tear-jerking drama.”

“A real tear-jerker, eh?”

“Moviegoers were urged to bring tissues to the theater. The stellar cast includes action superstar Wu Jing, young heartthrob Jackson Yee, and tough guy/real deal Hu Jun.”

“What’s the money line?”

“I guess it’s when Mao (actor Tang Guoqiang) solemnly says ‘the foreigners look down on us’ and ‘pride can only be achieved on the battlefield.’ That speaks to a long history of China getting pushed around by bullies.”

“So it’s a movie with two combatants, and China punches Uncle Sam in the nose.”

“More or less. Make that an arrogant Uncle Sam, as General Douglas MacArthur (actor James Filbird) delivered this fateful line to his troops: ‘I guarantee you this will be over by Thanksgiving.’”

“Lei, the first casualty of war is truth. What do the fact-checkers say about your blockbuster?”

“Well, the camera lens focuses on only one of the 22 nations that contributed military or medical personnel to the United Nations Command in Korea — the U.S., of course. On the other side, the heroes in the winter of 1950 are China’s newly minted People’s Volunteer Army, or PVA.”

“What’s the PVA’s goal?”

“Simple, to ‘resist U.S. aggression and aid Korea.’”

“And the PVA succeeded.”

“Yes, Buck, the film portrays this as a great Chinese military victory — 71 years ago.”

“What happened next?”

“The battle was a turning point as U.N. forces were forced to retreat south of the 38th parallel. China helped to create a stalemate — a war of attrition, really. That lasted until 1953, when the armistice still in place today was signed with no final peace settlement ever achieved.”

“So where did the film come from and who paid for it?”

“Bona Film Group Ltd., which teamed up with Quentin Tarantino and other production companies in 2019 to do ‘Once Upon a Time … In Hollywood.’ The Chinese Communist Party gave ‘Changjin’ rave reviews when it trumpeted its upcoming debut during the party’s 100th anniversary celebration on July 1. It’s the most expensive film ever made in China with a budget of $200 million.”

“I guess it really would take a superhero to conquer that.”

“For sure. I watched both films and I have to say I understand the appeal to both audiences.”

“How did ‘Spider-Man: No Way Home’ do at the box office in China?”

“TBD, Buck. There’s no release date, and any possible green light from the government’s China Film Administration got dimmer when the U.S. announced its diplomatic boycott of the Beijing Olympics.”

“So the Spider-Man movie surpassed Changjin’s $906 million without box office receipts from China?”

“Yep, globally but without China, the Spider-Man co-production between Sony and Disney topped $1 billion over the Christmas weekend like nothing seen since 2019’s ‘Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker.’”

“So I guess we’ve got two blockbusters here across a political divide. What made ‘Changjin’ so competitive?”

“Well for starters, it broke 12 records with the largest production scale and the most people participating in the history of Chinese cinema. The script took five years, the movie took two years of preparation with 460 workdays of shooting, seven filmmaking teams, a total of over 12,000 staff members and 40-plus special effects companies involved.”

“Looks like the filmmakers pulled out all the stops to please their Chinese audience.”

“Yeah, it brought in three industry heavyweights — Chen Kaige, Tsui Hark and Dante Lam — all household names to direct the movie. And the timing was right. Just as ‘Spider-Man’ was released in time for the Christmas season, ‘Changjin’ was released one day before the National Day holiday, known as Golden Week.”

“Western critics call it propaganda. What do you think?”

“It’s not a top-down brainwashy lesson, but more of a preaching-to-the-choir resonance with deep-felt patriotic and nationalistic emotions of the people built up from recent years of tension between our two countries. What can I say, patriotism sells ... despite its obvious flaws in the art of filmmaking.”

“As you might guess, a 2016 PBS documentary, ‘American Experience: The Battle of Chosin,’ calls the two-week battle involving 12,000 men of the First Marine Division, fought in brutally cold temperatures, ‘one of the most celebrated in Marine Corps annals’ and ‘recounts this epic conflict through the heroic stories of the men who fought it.’”

“To each his own storytellers, Buck.”

“What do you see in the two films that make them 1-2 on the world stage?”

“They are both about heroes. Those heroes both fought hard, and triumphed. They both went through struggles. They lost their loved ones. The American army is not portrayed as ‘villains,’ per se, in ‘Changjin’. In ‘Spider-Man’ the villains are not hard-core evil monsters, either. They are redeemable.”

“Any universal messages?”

“From ‘Changjin’ there’s this one: ‘You are only tough enough when your enemies take you seriously.’ And from ‘Spider-Man’ this gem: ‘When you try to fix people, there are always consequences.’”

“Those films would make quite the double-feature at a Chatham County drive-in, Lei.”

“Yes, Buck, all you need to enjoy them are five and a half hours, plenty of popcorn, an open mind and this quote from Confucius’ Analects: ‘In worthy teaching, all things are related.’”

About the authors: Buck Ryan, a University of Kentucky journalism professor, and Lei Jiao, an English lecturer at Wuhan University of Technology, Hubei Province, China, collaborate on articles to advance cross-cultural understanding. Ryan, who is doing a “participatory case study” of the News + Record, has been a visiting scholar at three universities in China, including Jiao’s WUT.

You can read previous dual-reviews of films by Ryan and Jiao from these links:

https://www.chathamnewsrecord.com/stories/love-conquers-slings-and-arrows-aimed-at-new-version,6690

https://www.chathamnewsrecord.com/stories/raya-meets-camus-so-you-think-its-just-a-kids-movie-eh,8702

https://www.chathamnewsrecord.com/stories/your-kids-will-flip-over-shang-chi-while-it-trips-over-a-china-divide,10663

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