You’ve likely never heard of 2021’s highest-grossing film—a Chinese war epic that critics call ‘propaganda’
A Chinese war epic, The Battle at Lake Changjin, has topped global box office rankings as the highest-grossing film of 2021, collecting $890 million in ticket sales since its release on Sept. 30 and, according to Global Times, has ousted 2017’s Wolf Warrior 2 as the highest grossing film in China ever.
But despite being the year’s highest earning film—trouncing Hollywood epics like Dune, Eternals and Shang Chi—few outside of China will have seen it.
The three-hour long action flick, based on a novel of the same name, is one of several patriotic movies the Chinese government has commissioned in celebration of the Chinese Communist Party’s centenary anniversary this year. The story follows the advance of a fictional Seventh Company in China’s real People’s Volunteer Army during the (also real) 1950-1953 Korean War—or the War to Resist U.S. Aggression and Aid Korea, as the conflict is known in China.
The Battle at Lake Changjin is based on a real battle that took place at North Korea’s Chosin Reservoir, where Chinese forces began a campaign to push the U.S. allies—which had advanced up the Korean peninsula towards its border with China—back to the so-called 38th Parallel, where the border between North Korea and South Korea still lies today. The rebuff was a bruising defeat for the U.S. and its allies, and The Battle at Lake Changjin amps up the ‘David vs Goliath’ narrative of China’s victory.
But the high-octane film’s staunchly pro-China narrative will likely dampen The Battle at Lake Changjin’s box office potential overseas, where international film critics have already lamented the film as “propaganda” for the Chinese Communist Party. In Malaysia, officials even prohibited the film’s release because the Malaysian Film Censorship Board ruled the epic promotes communism, which is outlawed in the country.
That The Battle at Lake Changjin became this year’s highest-grossing movie based on China ticket sales alone is testament to the economic might of the Chinese film market.
According to market analysts Gower Street Analytics, China is on track to account for 34% of the $21.6 billion global box office this year. Meanwhile, market tracker The Numbers says this year’s second highest grossing film—a comedy called Hi, Mom—is also a Chinese production and has relied mostly on domestic ticket sales.
Hollywood takes third place on the charts with the latest James Bond film, No Time To Die, which has earned $733 million in global takings. But China helped boost Bond’s box office figures, too, adding roughly $65 million to the title’s worldwide earnings and becoming the film’s fourth largest market.
The latest spy romp—and the last for actor Daniel Craig as Bond—is one of the few foreign films Chinese authorities have allowed Chinese theaters to screen this year. Beijing only permits 34 foreign films to run in the country each year and has, so far, kept out hopefuls including Disney’s Eternals, Black Widow and the Oscar-winning Nomadland.
In fact, Beijing blocked broadcast of the Oscars this year after an old interview in which Nomadland and Eternals director Chloé Zhao criticizes China began circulating on the Chinese Internet. And China can well afford to lock out foreign films. According to Chinese ticketing site Maoyan, domestic films accounted for 84% of China’s box office earnings last year and 64% of earnings in 2019 (before the pandemic shut Hollywood down).
But, in its 14th Five Year Plan last month, China’s National Film Administration announced plans for Chinese cinema to “open up overseas markets” and “enhance the international competitiveness of Chinese films.” Evidently, it will take more than The Battle at Lake Changjin to break Hollywood’s dominance overseas.
Subscribe to Fortune Daily to get essential business stories straight to your inbox each morning.