Director – Tsui Hark – 2022 – China – Cert. 15 – 153m
Ill-considered sequel to box office barnstorming, Chinese war movie fails to match the emotional engagement and excitement of the original – out in cinemas on Friday, February 11th
After the exciting and energetic original, this sequel is a disappointment. It has the same expertise of CG special effects as its predecessor. However the cast is cut down, many of the memorable characters having died heroically in the first film, and there’s no attempt to replace them. Similarly, the spectacular locations are fewer in number because there’s no journey from home through different regions, so this has a smaller geographical palette to play with.
The cast of characters issue would be easy enough to fix within the war genre: members of a military unit die, others come to the fore to replace them in the vacuum created. But no, here all we get are People’s Volunteer Army (PVA) 7th Company commander Wu Qianli (Wu Jing from The Wandering Earth, Frant Gwo, 2019, and sequels) and his younger brother Wu Wanli (Jackson Lee) and no real attempt to further develop their relationship under fire. The two characters are just there, and the audience is expected to carry over their emotional investment from the first film without the second one providing any reason for doing so. If you started at the second film, you wouldn’t understand why Qianli carries a notebook with a numbered list of troops in it. I suspect that would be true even if you saw the two films as a double bill back to back, but seeing them months apart as this writer did exacerbates the problem.
The characterisation of the enemy Americans feels more slapdash this time around too. Sample dialogue from an American officer on repairing the attacked bridge held by his forces: “If they blow it up one more time, we’ll be up Shit’s Creek without a paddle.” Elsewhere, the unconvincing script never gets beyond a simplistic characterisation General Douglas MacArthur as a military despot who reacts to events in a knee jerk fashion.
Likewise, the lack of locations could provide the opportunity to go into greater geographical detail, but there’s no attempt to deal with much beyond the one mountainous region containing the Water Gate Bridge and the massive pipeline nearby (the strategic significance of which is never explained in any great detail).
A few moments stand out from the bland whole – starving PVA troops eating frozen broad beans out of cans stolen from an American base, an advance scout being immediately shot by enemy fire as he emerges from cover underneath a bridge – but unlike the first film, there isn’t enough material here to justify a feature. The CG effects remain impressive, although some of them are extremely violent, for instance two soldiers lying on the ground reduced to piles of blood and gore in seconds via aerial bombardment. For the rest, though this proves that movie production under totalitarian Communism is just as capable of turning out ill-advised sequels to strong first features as is its counterpart in the capitalist West. Something of a blip in Tsui Hark’s largely remarkable career.
The Battle At Lake Changjin II is out in cinemas in the UK on Friday, February 11th.