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Chinese threat to Bollywood’s film factory

'The Battle at Lake Changjin', the highest grossing film of 2021 so far, is the most expensive Chinese movie ever made. It has been released to commemorate 100 years of the Chinese Communist Party.

November 28, 2021 / 12:43 PM IST
Three of the five highest grossing movies of 2021 so far have come from China. These include 'Hi, Mom', 'Detective Chinatown 3', and of course 'The Battle at Lake Changjin', which has already earned $859 million at the box office. (Illustration by Suneesh K.)

Three of the five highest grossing movies of 2021 so far have come from China. These include 'Hi, Mom', 'Detective Chinatown 3', and of course 'The Battle at Lake Changjin', which has already earned $859 million at the box office. (Illustration by Suneesh K.)

The Battle at Lake Changjin is now officially the highest-grossing film of 2021. The Chinese movie has already earned $859 million at the box office, almost entirely from within the country. This is in a year which has seen No Time to Die, the latest James Bond release starring Daniel Craig for the last time. Clearly that’s had little impact on the collections which have been subdued. The next highest grosser in fact is F9, part of the Fast & Furious saga starring Dwayne Johnson, which has so far made around $750 million.

The film’s success in China shouldn’t come as a surprise since it was commissioned by the world’s largest political party and is catering to an audience in the world’s most populous country. Indeed, the surprise is why it has taken so long to come. The most expensive Chinese movie ever made, it has been released to commemorate 100 years of the Chinese Communist Party.

Set in the period of the Korean War, the movie tells the story of how the People's Volunteer Army (PVA) entered North Korea in November 1949 and, in extreme freezing conditions, defeated US marines at Lake Changjin (also known as Chosin Reservoir). It was a turning point in the Korean War though the movie’s focus is on the courage and moral superiority of the Chinese troops.

Critics have cast doubts over the accuracy of the account depicted and have also commented on the overt propaganda of the movie. Despite counting heavyweights like Dante Lam, Tsui Hark and mainland Chinese filmmaker Chen Kaige in its list of directors, the film has also been roundly panned for its lack of a coherent storyline. The Guardian in its review wrote: “It’s a shame there is virtually no story to sew this ungainly patchwork of styles together.” Others have been equally dismissive. The Hollywood Reporter calls the English dialogue in the movie “execrable”. But none of the criticism is stopping the makers of the film from planning a sequel soon.

And that’s only fair. War movies, from Bollywood to Hollywood, are generally the same - jingoistic, loose with facts and full of wooden characters who are noble and heroic. They have only one aim, to induce a strong sense of feel-good nationalism among the audience and use that to rake in the moolah.

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Hollywood has had its share of positively ridiculous war films. A 2012 movie titled Battleship stars Rihanna as a petty officer in a laughable mish-mash of naval armadas. For variety there is Stealth, about a robot plane in Rangoon. Thankfully it was a dud, notching up huge losses. Back home, we’ve had movies like Border, highlighted by Sunny Deol taking on Pakistani tanks with a rocket launcher on his shoulder and a garland of grenades around his neck. The same director gave us LOC Kargil, full of songs and patriotic dialogues. It might have been funny had it not been so terrible. A more recent release, Uri: The Surgical Strike is replete with the same liberal dose of hypernationalism.

That’s the way with such films, whether in India, China or the US.

What’s more concerning is that the Chinese invasion of theatres may well be gaining momentum. Already this year, three of the top five highest grossing movies have come from China. These include Hi, Mom (distinct from the 1970 Brian De Palma dark comedy starring Robert De Niro) and Detective Chinatown 3.

For India, which has some pretensions to be the largest churner of films, that’s an ominous trend, particularly since nothing that Bollywood has ever turned out attained the same level of success. The battlelines are drawn and it is a matter of pride

Over to Kangana Ranaut’s Tejas, due for release next year, to show those Chinese their place.
Sundeep Khanna is a senior journalist. Views are personal.
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