By Andrew Hamlin
NORTHWEST ASIAN WEEKLY
Zhang Yimou’s latest pull-out-all-the-stops historical thriller seems to be making more headlines for its casting and its reception, rather than strictly for what’s shown onscreen. The director and producers took some flak after reports revealed that Matt Damon would play the starring role in a film set at the Great Wall of China during the country’s Song Dynasty.
Actress Constance Wu, from television’s “Fresh Off the Boat” comedy series, seemed to speak for many when she decried the apparent message of “a racist myth that only a white man can save the world … Our heroes don’t look like Matt Damon. They look like Malala. Ghandi. Mandela. Your big sister when she stood up for you to those bullies that one time. We don’t need salvation. We like our color and our culture and our strengths and our own stories.”
Zhang’s response to Entertainment Weekly was that for the first time, a film “deeply rooted in Chinese culture, with one of the largest Chinese casts ever assembled, is being made at tentpole scale for a world audience. I believe that is a trend that should be embraced by our industry.” He adds that “there are five major heroes in our story and he is one of them — the other four are all Chinese. The collective struggle and sacrifice of these heroes are the emotional heart of our film.”
Another development — this one more ominous to me: The Douban and Maoyan film review aggregator websites came under heavy fire from the People’s Daily, and the latter site responded by removing its professional reviews (which mostly panned the movie). Industry speculation runs that the Wanda Group, primary investors in “The Great Wall,” pressured the Communist Party’s house organ to pressure the websites.
I don’t know that anything can be proven. Frankly, though, any pressure on any kind of free speech, or even the appearance of such, raises disturbing implications. This should not be forgotten.
In terms of what’s onscreen, “The Great Wall” is a perfectly acceptable fantasy fare, so long as you’re willing to forgive that the most unlikeliness of the two non-Chinese leads being on the scene — Damon as William Garin, and Pedro Pascal as his good friend Pero Tovar. They’ve made their way deep into China to find the black powder — what, today, we would call gunpowder — which just might allow them to rule the world.
What they find of course is the Great Wall, presided over by a Chinese elite corps called the Nameless Order. And the Order’s job is to protect the rest of the country — and indeed, the rest of the world — from an inhuman menace, which, given its druthers, would easily take over both China and the world. Garin, Tovar, and a third Anglo character, Sir Ballard (Willem Dafoe), find themselves torn between saving the day, and just maybe saving the planet … or making off with as much of the miracle black powder as they can carry.
Jing Tian holds her head high as Commander Lin Mae, Damon’s not-quite-love interest. A graduate of the Beijing Dance Academy, she excels at fights, stunts, and derring-do, although I wish the script (written by three Westerners, from a story written by three other Westerners) gave her more actual acting challenges, rather than staring with affection at Damon. Andy Lau, playing war counselor Wang, presides with his usual quiet command of the screen. I was impressed by the young singer Lu Han as Peng Yong, a nervous fighter always unsure of himself, and always feeling compelled to make bigger and bigger sacrifices. Until he makes the supreme sacrifice, to definitively prove his worth.
In short, the movie’s vast, intricate, full of eye-popping battle scenes, and the monsters may give you nightmares. It should please anyone familiar with Zhang’s epic and physics-defying historical epics. I’m still worried about what’s going on in the real world, though. That requires more constant watching.
Andrew can be reached at email@example.com.