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Land War in Asia

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MOVIE REVIEW
The Battle at Lake Changjin (2021)

Centered on the 1950 Battle of the Chosin Reservoir that decided the Korean War, “The Battle at Lake Changjin” is a spare-no-expense epic commemorating the 100th anniversary of the Chinese Communist Party that boasts three noted filmmakers – Chen Kaige, Tsui Hark and Dante Lam (plus three more codirectors!) – a budget of $200 million and a three-hour runtime. It’s like Michael Bay’s “Pearl Harbor” but for the Chinese – same jingoistic celebration of militarist carnage but, instead of white gaze, we get communist homilies.

About two-thirds of “Changjin” is devoted to Chinese and American troops trading a succession of bombs, bullets, knives, fists and what have you. The other third barely registers as plot, involving Wu Qianli (Wu Jing), commander of the seventh company, and his undisciplined baby brother, Wu Wanli (Jackson Yee), who blindly tags along to the battlefield without any training. Here we have literal brothers in case the “Band of Brothers” trope isn’t laid on thick enough for ya.

The film namedrops a textbook’s worth of historical figures both Chinese and American – its Chinese Wikipedia entry lists 27 – with blink-and-miss title cards, all while giving no further characterization or context, as if hewing to directives in script notes passed from party officials completely unschooled in filmmaking.

Apparently only a smidgen of the bloated budget has been spent on the actors playing American troops, including James Filbird as Douglas MacArthur, John F. Cruz as Marine Corp. Gen. Oliver Smith and Kevin Lee as Army Col. Allan MacLean. It’s as if central casting has just rounded up every single white man in China and shuttled in truckloads of extras from Russia, no experience required. “Changjin” showcases some of the worst acting and most stilted line delivery in cinematic history, so cringeworthily bad that any comparisons to porn would be an insult to adult-film performers. One has to wonder if Chinese moviegoers will pick up on this, or it’ll escape them the way Awkwafina’s inability to speak Mandarin in “The Farewell” has gone virtually unnoticed over here.

It’s impossible to discern the division of labor among the filmmakers, each working with a separate crew per the end credits. Mr. Tsui’s and Mr. Lam’s reputations are probably left unscathed, since the combat sequences seem credible enough. But the screenplay by Huang Jianxin and Lan Xiaolong frequently undermines itself with absurd expositions, as if anyone on the frontlines would be in any mood for good ol’ barracks hazing, extolling the virtues of sacrifice or randomly breaking into morale boosting song. Elliot Leung and Wang Zhiyi have just gone through the motions while scoring the film, giving it the most generic war flick soundtrack without thinking about what would be most suitable for each scene. But the mere making of the film basically ensures that no one involved will end up on the blacklist, at least for now.

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