China’s latest blockbuster, the Korean War-themed “Sacrifice,” hit theaters on Oct. 23. For those keeping score, that’s just 78 days after principal photography began on Aug. 6. Needless to say, the film more than earned its tag line: “Not a second to lose.”
There’s method to the madness here. China’s film industry was shut down for the entire first half of the year as the country worked to contain its COVID-19 outbreak. With the 70th anniversary of China’s intervention in the Korean War — known on the Chinese mainland as the “War to Resist U.S. Aggression and Aid Korea” — on Oct. 25, and Sino-U.S. relations arguably at their lowest point in decades, practically the entire national film industry was mobilized to produce a fitting tribute in time.
Helmed by filmmakers Guan Hu, Guo Fan, and Lu Yang and featuring a cast studded with stars like Rambo-esque Wu Jing and arthouse favorite Zhang Yi, the speed with which “Sacrifice” was produced has earned it comparisons with Huoshenshan hospital, the makeshift COVID-19 hospital built in a matter of days this February. And not without good reason: A team of 2,600 artists worked around the clock to get the special effects done in time, finishing early enough that the film’s release was actually pushed up two days.
A still from the 2020 film “Sacrifice.” From Douban
The result is at times spectacular, with soldiers exploding in showers of blood and planes being blown out of the sky. But “Sacrifice” is more than just a feat of cinematic engineering. Given the circumstances and timing of its release, there’s no denying it was made with a very specific political goal in mind: To mentally prepare audiences to patriotically “Defend home and protect the country,” in the words of a recently revived slogan. And for that to happen, the movie has to engage viewers on an emotional level, not just a visceral one, meaning it needs to tell a good story.
Rather than try to come up with an affecting plot from scratch, the makers of “Sacrifice” took a shortcut, leaning heavily on the raft of domestically produced movies about the Korean War from the 1950s and 1960s. The central struggle, to protect a bridge long enough for a relief army to cross, parallels the 1960 film “Raid,” albeit with the two sides reversed. Its portrayal of soldiers, meanwhile, owes much to 1956’s tale of stoic troops under siege, “Shangganling.” And the titular sacrifice, when an anti-aircraft gunner reveals his position to draw the enemy’s attention, seems taken straight from 1964’s “Heroic Sons and Daughters.”
Stills from the 1960 film “Raid” (left) and 1956 film “Shangganling.” From Douban
The score of “Sacrifice,” too, ushers in nostalgia to elicit the desired emotional response. Neither of the film’s two most important tracks are original compositions. The first, which plays as Chinese soldiers save the day by forming a human bridge across treacherous waters, is “My Motherland.” The song, also famously used in “Shangganling,” is universally known on the Chinese mainland and has been dubbed “China’s second national anthem.” Not long after, “Sacrifice” closes with a cover of the “Heroic Sons and Daughters” theme.
It’s well done, and with over 350 million yuan ($53 million) in tickets sold over the weekend, the movie has clearly struck a chord with audiences. But it’s worth noting that “Sacrifice” is only able to draw so deeply from this well because of the, well, sacrifices made by those that came before. China’s first generation of Korean War films were no ordinary undertaking. They were built on the backs of a generation of filmmakers, storytellers, and artists, some of whom risked their lives to see them made. “Sacrifice” has made hay of its three-month timeline, but compared with what went into those earlier films, its production comes off as positively relaxed.
When the Chinese People’s Volunteer Army crossed the Yalu River into Korea in 1950, it was accompanied by dozens of literary and culture workers. Some of them were sent simply to keep morale high by staging performances and shows, but others were there to document the war firsthand. Their slogan was simple: “To the front! To the trenches! To live in the heat of battle we go!”
Their mission can be traced back to 1942 and Mao Zedong’s famous speech at the Yan’an Forum on Literature and Art: “China’s revolutionary writers and artists, writers and artists of promise, must go among the masses, they must for a long period of time unreservedly and wholeheartedly go among the masses of workers, peasants, and soldiers, go into the heat of the struggle.” Mao believed that for an author or artist’s work to resonate, they first had to speak their audience’s language, to know the details of their lives, and his words set the agenda of Chinese communist art for the next several decades.
One of the effects of Mao’s policy was the organization in 1952 of a 17-person platoon of artists and literary figures, who were sent to Korea under the direction of the famous novelist Ba Jin. After seven months spent touring the front lines, Ba returned to Shanghai, where he produced “Heroic Tales.” Dissatisfied with his work, Ba returned to Korea the following year for another two-month tour.
It was then that he heard the story of Zhao Xianyou. Zhao was a Chinese soldier who, realizing the Americans were advancing on his position, radioed his superiors and told them to fire on his location, giving his life to halt the attack.
Left: A screenshot from the 1964 film “Heroic Sons and Daughters” showing protagonist Wang Cheng calling for a bombardment of his position. From Youtube; Right: A still from 2020 film “Sacrifice” showing soldier Zhang Fei challenging an American fighter plane to a duel. From Douban
Ba spent years fictionalizing Zhao’s story. By the time it appeared in 1961, Zhao Xianyou had become Wang Cheng, and he was given a sister with her own family struggles to overcome. But the central, true story of Zhao’s self-sacrifice was as powerful then as it has proved to be now. Intentionally or otherwise, in borrowing from art produced at the peak of the socialist era, the success of “Sacrifice” seems to prove Mao got at least this much right: Going down among the masses may not be the only way to create a great work of art, but it can definitely help.
Personally, I’m almost glad the makers of “Sacrifice” had so little time, since it seems to have discouraged them from reinventing the wheel. They may be overly didactic, and their production values seem coarse to modern eyes, but the core stories of these classic films ring true for a reason.
Of course, lifting so heavily from old socialist films naturally colors the underlying ideology of “Sacrifice”: It’s been a long time since I’ve seen a Chinese war film so unequivocal in its depiction of wartime heroism. Unlike so many recent war movies, the soldiers in “Sacrifice” don’t spend the whole film terrified of dying or tired of living. They are throwbacks, in a way, to the optimism and courage of their ’50s counterparts.
I’ll admit, this has its charms. Fear is a part of life, but so is bravery, and while we should always reflect on the costs of war, that doesn’t mean we can’t remember its heroes for what they were.
Translated and edited by Kilian O’Donnell.
(Header image: A promotional image for the 2020 film “Sacrifice.” From Douban)