“The Battle at Lake Changjin” has become the highest grossing film of all time in China, after nearly two months of release. Co-directed by a trio of major helmers, Dante Lam, Chen Kaige and Tsui Hark, it is also the top earning film in the world this year.
The Chinese record was achieved on Wednesday evening local time when the film passed the RMB5.69 billion total achieved in 2017 by “Wolf Warrior II,” another patriotic war film. By midday on Thursday “Changjin” had advanced to RMB5.70 billion or $892 million at current rates of exchange, according to data from Ent Group.
The feat was confirmed by state-controlled media which had long predicted the achievement. Chinese media also reported that Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian sent congratulations to Wu Jing, the actor who played leading roles in both “Wolf Warrior” and “Changjin.”
The film is set during the early part of the 1950-1953 Korean War, which China refers to as the War to Resist U.S. Aggression and Aid Korea. And, while many western historians portray the war, which resulted in the division of the Korean peninsula, as a defeat for China, the film depicts the heroic resistance actions of a group of outnumbered and outgunned Chinese soldiers in a key winter campaign at Lake Changjin, or Chosin Reservoir.
The film was released on Sept. 30, in time to dominate the National Day holiday season. This is a high point in the annual cinema calendar, but in most instances is smaller than the Chinese New Year or Lunar New Year season.
“Changjin” had the advantage of potentially releasing on more screens than “Wolf Warrior II,” but the disadvantage of playing during an era still affected by the pandemic. In the early part of this year, Chinese theaters had appeared to shake off such handicaps, but since June temporary capacity restrictions have been reintroduced in some provinces as new COVID-19 cases are discovered.
Aggregate box office for the year-to-date is now running at 25% below 2019 levels, and stood at $6.85 billion as of Sunday, according to data from consultancy firm Artisan Gateway.
Given the generally downward trend that runs contrary to a recently announced central government plan for the film industry, efforts have been made to keep the film playing well. These include the organization of workplace and school outings to see the film.
According to the Global Times newspaper, state-owned film distributor Huaxia said that since last Friday, it has been giving 20% of its profits from the film back to struggling cinemas. Huaxia also said that it will now keep the film on release until Dec. 30.
The film has been released in Singapore, the U.K. and U.S. but overseas numbers are puny. Box Office Mojo reports a haul of $105,000 in North America. Nevertheless, the mainland China total alone makes “Changjin” the biggest film of any origin in 2021. Box Office Mojo shows “Changjin” ahead of another Chinese film “Hi, Mom” with an $822 million total, and James Bond franchise film “No Time to Die” in third place with $735 million.
State media kept up the positive spin by declaring that “Changjin” had passed a quality threshold by earning a nine-out-of-ten audience approval rating according to feedback on popular apps. They reported that it was the 11th film of 2021 to do so. The target, announced earlier this month in the five-year plan, was for ten.
The Global Times also cited a Chinese film critic who said that the film’s success “proved to the industry that the main melody of the film is the Chinese audience’s favorite theme.” Main melody is a description of mainstream, patriotic and pro-Communist content, which authorities require state- and privately-owned studios to produce.
The new five-year plan makes it clear that the Chinese film industry operates for the benefit of the state and the Communist Party. It offers support to films that “exhibit the Chinese national spirit and Eastern aesthetics” and calls for production of more titles that “eulogize the party, the motherland, the people and heroes so as to pass on red [Communist] genes and continue [the Party’s] lineage.” It identifies the ongoing 80th anniversary of the Korean War, as a historical landmark that films should celebrate.