Chinese war film makes box office record as cultural confidence rises
Published: Feb 10, 2022 09:44 PM Updated: Feb 10, 2022 11:53 PM
The Battle at Lake Changjin II and Snipers Photo:VCG

The Battle at Lake Changjin II and Snipers Photo:VCG

The Chinese war film The Battle at Lake Changjin II: Water Gate Bridge grossed more than 3 billion yuan ($471 million) as of Thursday, making the movie series The Battle at Lake Changjin about a historic military victory of China in the War to Resist US Aggression and Aid Korea (1950-53) the box office champion in China.

According to data from Maoyan, a movie industry website, adding the box office of the first episode - The Battle at Lake Changjin which was aired in 2021, the two movies have received more than 8.7 billion yuan, or $1.36 billion as of the press time on Thursday.

Analysts said the phenomenon of hugely successful war films in China shows that the Chinese market for movies has great potential and young Chinese have expressed their preference in movies, which also means the enthusiasm toward Hollywood blockbuster in China is cooling down and the awakening cultural confidence and rising patriotism in China will decide what kind of movies are welcome in this market. 

Resonance of patriotism

The Battle at Lake Changjin is not the only film about the war between the Chinese People's Volunteer Army and the US-led coalition force in the Korean Peninsula. The film Snipers which was released on the same day as The Battle at Lake Changjin II: Water Gate Bridge on February 1 grossed 367 million yuan as of Thursday night. 

Snipers depicted a battle between Chinese and US snipers and presents both perspectives, and was directed by Zhang Yimou, the Chinese director of the opening ceremonies of 2008 Beijing Summer Olympics and 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics, and his daughter Zhang Mo. Due to the busy preparations for the opening ceremony unveiled on February 4, Zhang told media that he has no time to publicize his film. 

But since the opening ceremony of the Beijing Winter Games 2022 became a huge hit, many netizens said on social media platforms after watching the opening that they will thank director Zhang by contributing box-office to his film Snipers. And many military fans who watched the Zhang's film said the film is better than The Battle at Lake Changjin II: Water Gate Bridge in terms of the story and details related to military combats, and they told the Global Times that they strongly recommended this film.

Zhang said in an article published in the People's Daily, the flagship newspaper of the Communist Party of China, on Thursday that "box office data is just a number, but what stands behind these numbers is the heart of the people."

"Young audiences pay so much attention to the film about a war more than 70 years ago because the patriotic sentiments the film shows remains relevant, and resonates," Zhang said in the article. 

Wu Weiwei, 20, a Beijing-based university student, said she didn't expect to be addicted to war films like the Battle at Lake of Changjin series, "not because of their star cast, but because we can see something we still need today from the film." 

Wu told the Global Times on Thursday that "In 1950, China was a poor and extremely undeveloped country as the civil war just ended in the mainland one year earlier. But our martyrs and heroes dared to fight and beat the most powerful military hegemony to save our neighboring country and keep the US invasion away from our border. This is about the life and death of our nation." 

Today, China also faces the strategic pressure and hostility from the same group of countries including the US, "but we are now a great major power. After watching the encouraging, touching and heroic story in 1950, we have no reason to be worried about the situation we face today," she noted.

Du Kaiyuan, a Shanghai-based commentator on military-related news, games and movies, said "a key reason why many young Chinese choose to support the war films is that they are hungry for stories about Chinese war heroes who can defeat the most powerful enemies on earth when their weapons and logistics were far worse than their enemies. So when we presented such films with high quality in recent years, the box office will go viral."

"In the past, we were too humble and friendly and kept a low profile in telling such stories, concerned about the feelings of some Westerners. But China has decided to encourage people with more confident and direct narratives and to meet the demand of patriotism, so we are now able to see more movies about that war on the big screen," he said.

A beacon for global movie industry 

Apart from encouraging people's patriotism, the huge achievements of the box office gained by Chinese films also have great significance for the economy. As the domestic box office rebounds with China's successful control of the COVID-19 pandemic, China's movie industry is increasingly becoming a leading force in the recovery of the global film industry, industrial sources and experts told the Global Times.

Last year, China's box office surged to 47.26 billion yuan ($7.43 billion), more than doubling the 2020 level of 20.3 billion yuan. It also accounted for about 39 percent of the world's total box office in 2021, based on data calculated by research company Gower Street Analytics. 

In comparison, the US box office still lags behind, although it also rebounded from 2020. Data released by measurement firm Comscore showed that the North American box office rose to an estimated $4.45 billion in 2021, about 60 percent of China's box office receipts. 

"China is increasingly becoming the biggest box office contributor and a crucial driving force for the global movie industry, with China's large population base and their rising consumption power," Xiang Kai, a playwright and director, told the Global Times on Thursday. 

Zhang Yi, CEO of iiMedia Research Institute, also said that when many overseas film producers are afraid of investing in movies amid the pandemic, the rapid recovery of China's movie markets provides a "positive example" and "fundamental support" for the global movie industry, as not only does the Chinese market provide ample chances for overseas movie companies to make  money, Chinese consumers also provide a consumption reference for the global movie industry, making them more confident about the trend of after-pandemic movie industry development. 

In 2021, two overseas films, "Fast & Furious 9" and "Godzilla vs Kong" were among the top 10 movies in China in terms of box office. The former ranked fifth at 1.39 billion yuan, while the latter ranked eighth with 1.23 billion yuan. 

However, Xiang stressed that it's becoming increasingly difficult for overseas movie companies to explore the mainland market, as competition from domestic films is growing and as consumers are becoming more rational and no longer get easily swept by Hollywood stories.

He said overseas films should understand and respect Chinese consumers' culture, taste and emotions, instead of just using Chinese elements as bait for mainland customers. He cited the example of Mulan, which failed in China as many people felt uncomfortable with the film's depiction of Chinese traditional culture. The Marvel film Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings faced strong disapproving sentiment from Chinese audiences and ultimately failed to release in the Chinese mainland. 

Xiang also stressed that China's box office rebound does not mean that the industry has entirely recovered, as the industry's prosperity relies too much on certain movies or genres.