The Battle at Lake Changjin: Water Gate Bridge (Chang jin hu zhi shui men qiao)
China (2022) Dir. Tsui Hark
Because the UK Blu-ray of this film has been re-titled The Battle at Water Gate Bridge, I didn’t realise this was a sequel to 2021’s Chinese Communist Party-commissioned epic The Battle at Lake Changjin until the opening recap, which looked a bit familiar. Slight fail there on the part of Cine Asia in confusing its audience.
Anyway, following the perfunctory recap – all 60 seconds of it – the story continues where it left off, with the remnants of the 7th Company of the People’s Liberation Army having succeeded in their mission to deliver communication supplies to their comrades on the frontline, and doing their bit in defending the eponymous lake against the US army, during what the Chinese tactfully called “The War To Resist U.S. Aggression and Aid Korea”, more commonly known by the snappier title “The Korean War”.
Unfortunately, they don’t get to go home, as war is not that simple, with no nine-to-five hours here. With a US airbase now captured and the US army on the receiving end of a hiding via their own commandeered artillery, they opt to retreat, but General Douglas McArthur (James Filbird) denies the request. General O.P Smith (John F. Cruz) disobeys the order and starts to move out across the Sumun – or Water Gate – Bridge.
The Chinese Army are aware that this is the Yanks’ only way out and send a coalition of various companies, including the ever decreasing 7th Company, headed by commander Wu Qianli (Wu Jing) and including his younger brother Wanli (Jackson Yee), to destroy the bridge and block the Americans’ retreat. Meanwhile, Gen. McCarthy has petitioned President Truman about using atomic bombs to win the war.
If you thought the first film was jingoistic and partisan, much like the scale of the action, it is turned up a few more notches. Lake Chanjin was the highest grossing Chinese film of all time so this inevitable and necessary – story wise – follow up had a lot to live up to. Released during the Chinese New Year which is the busiest time for cinemas, Water Gate Bridge made some nice coin to start the year but is currently eight places below its predecessor in the all time box office list.
Keen eyed readers may have noticed that only one director is listed for this sequel, whereas the first film boasted three. This is because 90% of this film was directed and edited by Tsui Hark, mostly of action footage that never made the 3-hour original, so his colleagues Chen Kaige and Dante Lam dropped their directing credits mere weeks before its release, which should give you an idea of what to expect here.
Pretty much action from the get-go, bullets are flying and explosions are booming with abandon as the two sides resume their fighting, although it is easy to forget why they are fighting. In fact, it is easy to forget a lot of things about the plot and the characters, and where I would usually offer assurances that this is rectified with flashbacks and such, I can’t do that in this instance because the script doesn’t make such concessions, and anyway, most of the cast end up before you remember who they are.
Sight spoiler there, but this is a war movie which means casualties left, right, and centre even for the main cast, so be prepared for the brave and indomitable 7th Company to shrink in personnel before your very eyes. In all fairness, whilst this is predominantly an exercise in saluting China’s fallen heroes, there is a moment of balance at the end where we see the Americans survey and lament their own losses, with Gen. Smith saluting before a makeshift graveyard of his dead soldiers.
War is not very nice, you see, and this film reminds us of that with all the subtlety of a Drag Queen through a series of high octane battle scenes for 2 ½ hours. There are some quieter moments, mostly for the Chinese to tally up their losses and figure out their next plan of attack, whilst the rest of the time is spent with the Americans, speaking in a strange expository manner with what sounds like badly dubbed accents by actors with something stuck up their backsides.
No really. Dialogue from western actors in Asian cinema has always been delivered in a bland, wooden style – perhaps to avenge years of stereotyping of Asians in Hollywood films – but this takes it too far. The accents range from eager country hick to serious LA cop types all lacking intonation, inflection, and emotion, with McCarthy being the worst cliché ridden caricature of all with his bellicose assertion that retreating is treason, which he says whilst at a dinner ball in Japan!
Hark’s shift from spectacular martial arts action to full on CGI bombast is completed here, notably in the second half where he attempts to out-Hollywood Hollywood. By that, I mean the missions may be simple for 7th Company but the execution is outlandishly dumb, combining the silliness of Ninja-stealth with Bond-esque near misses of death. Logic left the building at the same time as the plot so be warned for the gravity-defying adroitness and implausible feats of heroism with mismatched weaponry.
Yet, for the most part some if it very impressive to watch – a recap sequence shown through frozen in time 3D tableaux complete with bullet trails and half explosions is a supremely edited and composed scene. Similarly, one PLA soldier being literally blown to smithereens by a tank missile in slow motion also makes for a great visual, a gimmick used a few time and never gets old.
Epic in scale and in runtime, Water Gate Bridge is an unabashed blockbuster of immense visual spectacle and exciting military combat but that is really all it is, having left the story behind with its predecessor, whilst the nationalistic sentiment is once again laid on thick with a shovel.