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The Battle at Lake Changjin: A new Chinese view of the Chosin Reservoir


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There is a saying that the history books are written by the victors.


But what if both sides of a battle both claim to have won?


If you have not seen it yet, the 2021 release of the Chinese blockbuster The Battle at Lake Changjin does exactly that.  Officially sanctioned, and the highest grossing Chinese movie in history, it recasts the Battle of Chosin Reservoir, hallowed in US Marine Corps history as a successful repulse of a heavily armed US invasion of its neighboring Korea.


That view could be argued on a number of fronts.  The late war campaigns pushed what China considered as hostile forces back to the original 38th Parallel that divided Korea and away from their borders.  And it also established the recently established People’s Republic as a nation not to be trifled with.


Many reviewers have noted that the film coincides with a rise in Chinese nationalism and in particular its willingness to challenge the United States. 


I’ll not go into that here as there are many articles on the internet that speak to that aspect of the film.  One of the ones I liked was https://supchina.com/2021/12/01/the-real-battle-at-lake-changjin/


Of course, online reviews from within China are effusive with praise, and for good reason.  Officially sponsored by elements of the Chinese government, at least one internet blogger has been brought up on charges under a recently passed bill that makes it a crime to defame the heroes of the past.


Instead, I’d just like to provide my notes after watching the nearly 3 hour epic.



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In no particular order:


The heroes of the movie are members of the 7th Company.  All the key characters are there that you would expect in a war movie.  You could easily consider this a Chinese version of the Band of Brothers.


There is the company commander, who is wise due the previous battles he has fought, and trusted by his men.  His backstory includes a promise to his parents to 16334995661.png.a301e3600904d46cac593c768960d098.pngbuild them a house when the fighting is over.


He is joined by his younger and less talented brother, who was basically wasting his life in the home village.  He reports directly to the unit, where both by cajoling (or harassment, take your pick) by his peers and his experiences in battle, he is molded into a soldier.


There is the first sergeant who is gruff, but only in the name of teaching his soldiers how to survive.


There is the “political instructor”… after all this is a communist army.


And then the specialists… the expert sniper, the mortar man who can drop a round dead on target, etc. etc.   All of these are familiar characters (perhaps aside from the political instructor) that any audience can identify with.


The unit itself has a sense of unity and purpose that takes them through the harshest of conditions and battle field losses.

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The Americans are generally shown as either naïve or buffoons.  They are either slack and over confident, or they are running around in a panic with no clue what to do when they are attacked.


The English dialogue spoken by the American soldiers ranges from inane to stupid.  In the middle of the attack in which the 31st Infantry Regiment is overrun, one of the soldiers is heard to ask “Do you think this will be over by chow time?”


The American officers in particular seem to all b559112151_Americans2.jpg.5a7c6e059e1eac52f3e34b54698a287b.jpge frozen in motion when the shock of the Chinese attacks overwhelm.  They throw their hands up and shout nonsensical orders.  This is in contrast to the Chinese PVA officers who are calm, cool and calculating.


During the battle scenes, the Americans are generally shown as big, dark hulking creatures.  The thick winter clothing only adds to this iimage.

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General MacArthur, who has his own detractors in our own country, is depicted as a shrill egomaniac, with a focus on his promise to end the war before Christmas.  Visually, his face is pockmarked, and his manner is stiff as a board.  His portrayal looks like someone in a bad Halloween costume.  He’s played by an American who is currently living in China who appears to have beeMV5BYmY1MmI4ZjctNTdjNC00NzM5LThkYTQtYjNlNWIyZjg3MTVkXkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyMjQwMDg0Ng@@._V1_.jpg.5a28ab2abffa60ec0b48a5ce083d5d6d.jpgn more than willing to belittle the memory of MacArthur.

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The 31st Infantry Regiment is particularly held to criticism.  Early in the movie, they are shown as green troops awaiting orders while their commander exhorts them about the coming victory.  


The grenade bearing private in the photo below confidently recites the units previous accomplishments in WWI and WWII, and encourages his fellow soldiers to remember their legacy. 



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Of course, later in the movie the 31st Infantry is overrun in a humiliating defeat.  The commander is shown mortally wounded while the regimental standard is torn off the wall. 



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The pace of the movie is absolutely frenetic.  This is especially true of any scene involving the Americans and the battle scenes.  It has the pacing you typically find in a Kung Fu movie, where everything seems to be happening at once.  The battle scenes are just constant nonstop action.  Even the American base camps are just bustling with men and vehicles all moving around.

(On a technical note, this made the effort to grab screenshots difficult as things simply did not stand still long enough to get a good image.)


The landing at Inchon is a good example.  The screen is full of American warships which seemingly violate all manner of rules of navigation.  I am sure the coastline was busy with activity, but there are just too many images stuffed onto the screen at once to be credible.  LST’s are shown firing rockets over the head of destroyers… I am pretty sure it was the other way around. 



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A point that the movie makes over and over again by showing so much equipment is that the Americans were the best equipped Army in the world at the time.  As the movie progresses, they are taken on by Chinese guerilla forces who only have what they can carry with them.  One can imagine the implication of what the Chinese eebbbca66cc94ba0b539d98b45f5a204.jpg.b12b13ae6b72d11fa398538cb2876cb6.jpgArmy would be capable of in the current day with equipment that matches their Western opponents.


Equipment is not the only issue.  While the Chinese troops are hiding in the mountains eating cold potatoes, the already well fed Americans are shown chowing down on a plentiful Thanksgiving dinner.  The irony is obvious and forced to evoke the sympathy of the home audience.

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American airpower is omnipresent.  The filmmakers tended to favor the F4U Corsair for depicting fighter bombers.  Their gull wings are exploited to look like a flock of descending vultures.  With the landings at Inchon, Corsairs are shown swooping down on innocent boatmen along a river bank with all the fury that you saw from the Japanese in Tora, Tora, Tora.


(Minor note:  I don't believe the US Navy painted the stars on both upper wings during this time period.  It seemed the film maker wanted to emphasize that these were American planes bombing the country side.)


A-26 Invaders are also seen, along with a brief appearance by a flight of Skyraiders.



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American Tanks prowl the countryside, but are also shown to be ineffective and vulnerable in the narrow mountain valleys.  But again, these steel monsters are used to emphasize the disparity in equipment between the opposing sides. 



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As far as weaponry, the PVA volunteers are shown to be using what they could capture from their enemies.  The company commander favors a Sten gun, probably left over from WWII.  His brother picks up an American carbine at some point, and M1 Garands are also seen in use by the Reds.


Interestingly, even the munitions are used for propaganda purposes.  American grenades, for example, when they detonate, have all the sizzle of a large New Year’s firecracker.  Chinese grenades and shape charges produce explosions that could be measured in megatons.


Music, of course, heightens the mood.  The background music for the landing at Inchon is both menacing and a call to arms.



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Minor characters are also shown in their heroic roles.  


On their way to the front, the soldiers of the 7th Company stop at a train depot for replenishment.  Unfortunately, they are interrupted by an American air raid before they could get their full compliment of winter uniforms.


This young lady and her coworkers valiantly throw stacks of bundled uniforms into the arms of the troops a they pull out of the station.  They then throw their own hats and coats, and the young woman throws her symbolic red scarf and hat as well.  We then see her wave farewell to the warriors riding off to battle. 

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Even with a fictional work, you can sometimes pick up details and trivia that you may have overlooked.


In this scene, the identification badges and identifying hat stars are gathered and turned in before they unit crosses into Korea.




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Not a spoiler, but ultimately the American units are pushed back.  The movie gives this tactical withdrawal all the signifigance of Napoleon's retreat from Moscow. It's over done with scores of wounded and stacks of dogtags.  It implies that the final withdrawal was a complete and chaotic route.


The final scene is thousands upon thousands of Chinese troops rushing to the shoreline waiving their rifles and red flags in the air, symbolically having pushed the Americans back into the ocean.


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The uniforms become an allegory for the struggle of the Chinese troops during their struggles in this epic.  They start of clean and smart looking and in the end they are reduced to rags.  But in their eyes, despite horrendous losses, they won.


To the victors, go the history books.


This is a very quick glance that barely covers this epic movie. 


The bottom line is I recommend watching this mega-movie on a cold wintry afternoon when you have something else to do.  Or, you could do what I did and break it up into three one hour segments. The Chinese characters are played by their A-list actors, and they are believable in their roles.  The production values are first rate, and in general a feeling of suspense is maintained throughout the movie.  Of course, it ends on a highly patriotic note if you happen to be Chinese, and that can be quite antagonizing if you are an American viewer.  But it does offer an interesting view as to how “the other side” viewed the war.


The movie is currently available in full length on Youtube with English subtitles. 

I tried posting a link here, but apparently that somehow violates the copyright of a movie freely being distributed on Youtube.



(The photos are mostly screen grabs from the movie itself (not an easy task as noted) and still shots from IMDB and other promotional materials.  The copyrights for these images belong to the film makers, and are only used here for critical review.  







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A couple of postscripts:


1)  I cannot remember seeing a single Korean, North or South, military or civilian, depicted in this movie.  Apparently the film makers (and the government) wanted to emphasize this was a struggle between China and the United States.


2)  What got me started on this topic was my curiosity about the tanks that are shown.  The aircraft, while well done, are CGI.  Some of the tanks are as well, but others looked to be live vehicles.


While I could not find a "making of" article in English about the movie, I did find a trailer from one of the directors.  It include the attached overhead shot.  That along with another image from the movie confirms that full sized vehicles were used.  I asked for comments on a Facebook forum specializing in armored vehicles, and several discrepancies were pointed out on the Shermans to suggest they were mock ups.  But this demonstrates the amount of money dedicated to this movie to go to the expense of creating two full tank platoons.  It is similar to when aircraft were built or procured for Tora, Tora, Tora and the Battle of Britain. 

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  • 1 month later...
  • 2 years later...
On 3/14/2022 at 10:21 PM, patches said:

Indeed, great summery, by the way where did they get all the American characters and extras?

$$$ will get you all the Actors and Extras you need. The Chinese government has plenty of it.

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