Chinese Movie About U.S. Military Defeat Set to Break Box Office Records

A Chinese epic about the strategic defeat of the United States during the Korean War is set to become the country's highest-grossing movie of all time despite criticisms surrounding historical inaccuracies.

The Battle at Lake Changjin was released on September 30 and is the latest in a line of patriotic Chinese films—specially approved by the government—that some observers say border on propaganda. Its opening coincided with China's National Day holidays on October 1, and the timing aligns with wider celebrations marking the centennial of the Chinese Communist Party in 2021.

Lake Changjin is the nation's most expensive film to date, with a budget of $200 million. It's also the perfect production for the world's biggest movie market, which responded enthusiastically on its opening day, rewarding box offices with $203 million worth of ticket sales.

According to IMDb-run Box Office Mojo, the Korean War flick told from the Chinese perspective has earned $769 million so far, all from a single market. Under current projections, Lake Changjin could become the best performing film in Chinese box office history if it surpasses the $882 million generated by 2017's Wolf Warrior 2—another patriotic action film in which Chinese protagonists vanquish foreign foes.

A more conservative prediction by Chinese entertainment website Maoyan puts Lake Changjin on course for a $843 million finish, which would still make it the highest grossing film of 2021 anywhere in the world.

Chinese Korean War Epic Making Movie History
A woman walks past a movie promotion poster or "The Battle of Lake Changjin" at a mall in Beijing on October 11, 2021. NOEL CELIS/AFP via Getty Images

In recent years, China's history-making cinematic blockbusters have followed a familiar pattern of patriotism and nationalism that depicts Chinese heroes as the wronged before glorifying their sacrifices. Lake Changjin is no different.

Communist Party newspaper the Global Times on Sunday described the film's influence across the country "unprecedented." The movie promises to be "a successful cultural export to make the world begin to listen to the voice of China," it declared in a headline.

Incidentally, Chinese action hero Wu Jing, who played the leading role in Wolf Warrior 2—the film that spawned the monicker for the country's hawkish diplomats—also stars in the Korean War epic. In keeping with the times, the movie tells of brave Chinese troops helping their North Korean allies by holding off and forcing away American invaders during the campaign known in the West as the Battle of Chosin Reservoir.

In Chinese military lore, the Korean War between 1950 and 1953 is known as "the War to Resist U.S. Aggression and Aid Korea."

The Battle at Lake Changjin
'The Battle at Lake Changjin' is is about the Battle of Chosin Reservoir during the Korean War. Polybona Films

The Battle of Chosin Reservoir took place in the winter of 1950 between Chinese troops of the People's Volunteer Army (PVA) and U.S.-led United Nations forces, who pushed Soviet-backed North Korean troops back up the Korean Peninsula after they had crossed the border into South Korea at the start of the conflict that summer.

The trigger of the Korean War is rarely mentioned in Chinese accounts, but efforts to resist American troops as they pushed North Korean soldiers toward the border with China are now retold as part of Communist leader Mao Zedong's legend.

The bloody battle resulted in heavy losses on both sides; thousands more died of exposure to the cold weather before American-led UN troops evacuated south. Lake Changjin, however, focuses not only on the sacrifices of the PVA but also on the impossible odds they faced as they came up against better-equipped and better-fed U.S. forces.

Commentators have noted that the battle was not always viewed as a success for Mao's new China, which had only been founded one year earlier in October 1949. PLA casualties—by both Chinese and UN accounts—were estimated at just under 50,000. The U.S., meanwhile, is said to have lost nearly 18,000 lives.