2021's Highest Grossing Movie Isn't What You Think it Is

While Spider-Man: No Way Home sets pandemic-era box office records in most of the world, it still has a long road to go to become the highest-grossing film of 2021. That's because the movie that already has that title has made close to $1 billion. Chang jin hu, or The Battle At Lake Changjin, is the highest-grossing movie of 2021, grossing over $903 million in China. The $200 million picture is a dramatization of the Korean War battle and is unlikely to ever be widely released in U.S. theaters.

The Battle At Lake Changjin was released in China on Sept. 30, just in time for the National Day holiday season. It has grossed $903.7 million there as of Dec. 17, according to The Numbers. The movie also has a very limited release in Australia and the U.K., which brings its worldwide total to $903,878,358. The second-highest grossing movie of the year is another Chinese title, the comedy Ni Hao, Li Huan Ying (Hi, Mom), which has grossed $841 million worldwide. The highest-ranking Hollywood movie is No Time to Die, which has grossed $768 million so far. No Way Home sits at No. 6 with $587.2 million thus far.

Two months after The Battle At Lake Changjin hit theaters, the movie broke China's all-time box office record, surpassing another war movie, 2017's Wolf Warrior II, reports Variety. Although the Korean War is seen as a defeat for China by many Western historians, the film focuses on a battle early during the war, with a group of outnumbered Chinese soldiers fighting Americans at the Chosin Reservoir in North Korea. The film was commissioned by the Chinese Communist Party's propaganda department to be timed with the 100th anniversary of the Chinese Community Party's establishment.

Western critics who have seen The Battle At Lake Changjin haven't been kind to it. The Guardian's Phil Hoad called it "straight-up propaganda... almost comedically so at times." While war movies from other countries play fast and loose with history, Hoad noted this one is "essentially a government project." In The Hollywood Reporter, Elizabeth Kerr noted there were very few Korean characters in the movie, and Americans are "vividly drawn as a mustache-twirling gaggle of sadists." Kerr also criticized the film for "lacking in a single vision." The Battle At Lake Changjin has three credited directors – Chen Kaige, Tsui Hark, and Dante Lam – and five cinematographers. The Malaysian government banned the movie for promoting communism, which is illegal in Malaysia.

A sequel to The Battle At Lake Changjin is already in the works, reports Variety. Titled Water Gate Bridge, the movie will feature the same actors, focusing on the Chinese People's Volunteer Army in a different maneuver at the Chosin Reservoir in North Korea, leading up to the withdrawal of U.N. troops from North Korea. The writers and directors are also returning, with Bona Film Group and the state-run August First Film Studio producing.