The Korean War has been called ‘the Forgotten War’ in the United States, according to the New York Times. In part that’s because coverage of the 1950s conflict was censored. Moreover, its history has often been overshadowed by books and films about the Second World War and to a lesser extent the more recent conflict in Vietnam.
In China, histories of the war on the Korean peninsula haven’t been centre-stage either. The nation’s propaganda apparatus has tended to omit mentions of battles in the latter stages of the conflict, when the Chinese People’s Volunteer Army (PVA) suffered damaging setbacks against United Nations forces led by the US. By the time an armistice was agreed in July 1953, there were more than 21,000 Chinese POWs in South Korea. About 14,000 of them opted to go to KMT-controlled Taiwan, instead of being repatriated to mainland China – a statistic that propaganda authorities in Beijing also preferred not to bring up.
Instead Chinese historians often devote more attention to looking at the PVA’s more successful campaigns from the early period of the Korean War, when they pushed back the Americans from the Yalu River (effectively the border with China) to the 38th parallel (which still serves as a separator between North and South Korea).
One movie about a crucial confrontation from that stage of the war, The Battle at Lake Changjin, is now on course to become the highest grossing blockbuster from China. Lake Changjin was supposed to be released last year amid a flurry of films and documentaries timed to coincide with the 70th anniversary of what is better known in China as ‘The War to Resist US Aggression and Aid Korea’ (see WiC515). However, shooting of the blockbuster film was disrupted by the Covid-19 outbreak (see WiC501).
According to ThePaper.cn, production costs of Rmb1.3 billion ($200 million) made the film China’s most expensive to make. With more than 70,000 extras, it is also said to have deployed the largest cast in movie history too. But its main investor Bona Film Group is increasingly hopeful that Lake Changjin will break the local box office record held by Wolf Warrior 2 which took Rmb5.7 billion in 2017.
Following its debut during the October 1 National Day holidays, Lake Changjin had grossed Rmb4.45 billion as of Thursday, according to ticketing agency Maoyan.
Like Wolf Warrior 2, its main star is action hero Wu Jing (see WiC376). The movie depicts the epic battle at Lake Changjin (or Chosin Reservoir) in late November 1950. At the time the Korean War was five months old. and North Korean resistance had all but disintegrated. UN forces were planning a final offensive to push right up to the Chinese border and American commander Douglas MacArthur had even told his troops that the war would end in time for them to “eat Christmas dinner at home”.
Historians say MacArthur saw little risk of Chinese intervention, concluding that even if Mao Zedong sent his forces into Korea they would suffer “the greatest slaughter”. But few on the UN side could have foreseen the colossal ambush planned by the PVA. More than 200,000 Chinese soldiers were believed to have secretly crossed the Yalu River, hiding themselves in the North Korean mountains in brutally low temperatures. Their relentless waves of attack started just as the Americans were celebrating Thanksgiving, catching the UN forces off guard. As a result nearly 20,000 American soldiers suddenly found themselves surrounded by Chinese troops and at risk of annihilation by the shores of Lake Changjin.
The Americans managed to break out of the trap, inflicting heavy casualties on the PVA. But the Chinese would later claim victory in achieving the bigger strategic objective of driving the Americans off North Korean soil. Lake Changjin glorifies the sacrifice of the PVA soldiers for this end. Essentially an army of light infantry, these PVA troops took on the world’s best equipped army (plus a formidable US air force).
According to the Global Times, the movie has pushed patriotic sentiment across the country to new peaks amid increasingly tense China-US relations. Many moviegoers told the newspaper they were inspired by the war epic. State censors, meanwhile, have gone all out to make sure that dissenting voices are snuffed out.
For instance, one of the most powerful scenes in the film depicts ‘Ice Sculpture Company’: PVA soldiers that froze to death when holding their positions against the enemy (legend has it that, when their bodies were found, the frozen soldiers were still pointing their rifles in the direction of the enemy frontline). However, when web influencer Luo Changping took to Sina Weibo to describe these martyrs in disparaging terms and question the Chinese command’s tactics of the time, his social media accounts were rapidly shut down.
The former journalist was then prosecuted for infringing the reputation of the country’s war heroes.
According to HK01, a Hong Kong-based news portal, the authorities have taken a tough line with other critics of the film, showing little tolerance for negative views of the Lake Changjin movie. Nearly 3,000 weibo accounts have been suspended as a result of comments posted.
Chinese films about going to war with the Americans – let alone of the blockbuster variety – have been a rare genre since the re-establishing of diplomatic ties with the US in 1979. A TV documentary designed to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Korean War was even pulled in 2000, reportedly on concerns that it might fan acrimony in Washington (at a time when China was lobbying to join the WTO).
Much has changed since then and the ‘Forgotten War’ has been rather more recognised in China in recent years (three Korean War movies debuted in the lucrative National Day screening window last year).
Some take this as a worrying signal, amid a nasty deterioration in Sino-US ties. That has bred fears that political rows between the two governments could spin out of control into something more belligerent. Indeed, news broke last month that during the waning days of the Trump administration, Mark Milley, chairman of the Pentagon’s joint chiefs of staff, even called his opposite number in the People’s Liberation Army to reiterate that the US had no intention of launching a military strike on China.
Diplomatic efforts have since sought to address what is an increasingly volatile military landscape (see the related article on Taiwan in this week’s “Cross Strait” section). Last month President Xi Jinping took a phone call from Joe Biden, who told his Chinese counterpart that his administration wants to have more candid exchanges with China so as to “avoid miscommunication, miscalculation and unintended conflict”.
Talks on all levels have been resumed. Top Chinese diplomat Yang Jiechi met with US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan in Zurich earlier this month. After the closed-door meeting, the White House announced that both sides had agreed in principle for their leaders to ‘meet’ via a video conference before the end of the year.
Chinese Vice Premier Liu He also held virtual talks with US Trade Representative Katherine Tai last week in efforts to resolve a longrunning row over trade tariffs. The antipathy has spread across a number of sectors, including the film industry. According to the Hollywood Reporter, American studios have seen their access to the Chinese market dramatically diminish this year (the Wall Street Journal reported this week on Disney’s struggle to get its films into cinemas, noting: “The Magic Kingdom is running into trouble in the Middle Kingdom”).
In fact Legendary and Warner Brothers’ Dune will be the first US studio title to appear on Chinese cinema screens in months when it debuts next week. It’s followed on October 29 by the 25th James Bond movie No Time to Die.
But after the strong showing of Lake Changjin Forbes worries that Beijing may take the view that “China doesn’t need Hollywood blockbusters” anymore.
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