It may come as a surprise to Canadian film fans, but the top box office movie in 2021 is not James Bond’s No Time to Die or the legendary sci-fi Dune. It’s the Chinese blockbuster The Battle at Lake Changjin.
It has some Hollywood elements, for instance heroic soldiers overcoming great odds to defeat a villainous enemy. But the heroic soldiers aren’t American and the enemy isn’t the Indians or the Axis powers of WWII. The heroes are in fact Chinese and they are defeating American troops in Korea.
The Battle at Lake Changjin is a Chinese propaganda film that has become a national hit. It is China’s highest-grossing film ever and currently the top grossing film in the world. Apparently a number of patriotic films commissioned by the Chinese government in recent years have become big commercial successes.
The reason for the film’s record earnings is the immense size of the Chinese market, by far the biggest in the world. And then there’s the coercive component. Watching such films is almost a patriotic duty in China. They are often mandatory viewing for Communist Party cadres and the party has over 95 million members. And needless to say, critics are expected to say nothing but good things about such movies (or else). Eat your heart out, Hollywood.
Indeed Hollywood avidly seeks a share of this lucrative box office, but it’s a tough market for foreigners. China allows only 34 foreign films a year.
But there are opportunities. According to Stanley Rosen, a political science professor at the University of Southern California, “China wants to remain the No. 1 film market after Covid, and it still needs Hollywood blockbusters … As the production values of Chinese films continue to improve, Hollywood may become less relevant, but Hollywood tells universal stories that China can’t or won’t tell.”
Hollywood produces propaganda too of course. From convincing Americans that they won the Second World War in Europe, even though the Nazis’ main antagonist was Russia, to making heroes out of such as Jesse James, a psychopathic killer. But Hollywood also freely, and often fiercely, criticizes aspects of the American way of life. When the Chinese film industry is able to to that, only then will it be a worthy competitor of Hollywood.