I love going to the movies, but I also love sitting at home and ordering movies that I missed the first time around on demand. Sometimes I even skip the theater just to have the (delayed) at home experience. I’m lazy, is what I’m saying.
I had been keeping my eye on the listings, waiting for Zhang Yimou’s The Great Wall in anticipation. From the early whitewashing controversy over the casting of Matt Damon to the mixed reviews upon release, I was eager to check it out and make up my own mind — because the fact that the most expensive film ever made in China was a $150 million dollar Chinese/American co-production starring Matt Freaking Damon is kind of astounding.
The Chinese film industry has historically had a contentious relationship with Western influence. Today China caps the number of U.S. productions that can open in theaters at something like 34 per year, in order to prioritize their own film releases. But despite this, the Chinese market (which boasts 1.4 million potential viewers) has become a lucrative box office player for Hollywood. The question moviemakers on both sides are asking is how to make films that appeal to audiences in China, North America, and the rest of the globe.
Rogue One tackled this question by casting Donnie Yen and Jiang Wen in central roles. Iron Man 3 had about 4 minutes of additional content in its Chinese release that wasn’t included in the international version (and which was criticized as a pointless, pandering addition by many Chinese critics). Recently XXX: The Return of Xander Cage (which also featured Donnie Yen in a key, heavily marketed role) had several Chinese investors, only cost $85 million to make, and went on to gross $156 million in China alone. The same doesn’t always go both ways, however. The highest grossing film ever in China, Stephen Chow’s 2016 movie The Mermaid, barely got a stateside release (though it was still a domestic success, grossing over $1 million despite being released on only 35 screens in the U.S.). Most U.S. fans of Chinese cinema have to wait until Netflix or Amazon gets ahold of the films in order to check them out, so it was exciting to think that we’d have a shot at catching this one on the big screen.
In some ways Zhang Yimou’s own career is indicative of this China’s love/hate relationship with the rest of the Western cinematic world. His early films won international acclaim and awards, though several of them were initially banned in China because they were deemed too anti-authoritarian or feminist (1991’s Raise the Red Lantern being an example). By the 2000s he was probably best known stateside for directing Hero, the martial arts drama starring Jet Li which was one of the few foreign language films to debut at #1 in the U.S. box office (thanks to Miramax, which imported the film 2 years after it’s Chinese debut). He was also chosen to direct the opening and closing ceremonies for the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing — and even won a Peabody Award for the task. He went from being criticized for having too much Western influence in his films to being the poster boy for Chinese cinema abroad.
The Great Wall was, in many ways, an experiment. And while it was costly, it doesn’t look like any of the stakeholders will be taking too big a loss on the picture. In China the film made $171 million, which was less than hoped for but is hardly a failure. The film was primarily created for the Chinese market, but Yimou’s international recognition and the casting of Matt Damon were steps to broaden the appeal. And no, Damon is not a white savior in the film. His character is a mercenary who joins the fight to defend the Great Wall from CGI monsters that are threatening to overrun China and the rest of the world. While he initially impresses the Chinese army with his skill in defeating one of the monsters single-handedly, this is later revealed to have less to do with his skills and more to do with the beasts’ weakness to magnetic rocks (seriously). He is awestruck by the military organization and ingenuity he witnesses (to the point that it could almost be propaganda), and over the course of the film he learns the value of trust and honor from their example. It’s not really clear if he manages to teach them anything in return. And, crucially, there is no romantic involvement between his character and the female commander he works most closely with (played by Tian Jing). They respect each other, and then he leaves. That’s it.
It isn’t a perfect movie, but you know what? It was still lovely to look at, beautifully shot and pretty fun to watch. It was nice to see a film with two languages being spoken and not have it feel like a stunt. It thwarted my expectations at key moments. The fight choreography was impressive. The beasties were mostly a run-of-the-mill CGI horde but the use of the hive-mind with a Queen at its center made for an interesting and economical twist. Basically, I’ve sat through worse.
In the end, I walked away thinking that it’s a shame more American audiences missed this one, as it feels like an important moment in global cinematic history and a sign of a trend that will continue. While Hollywood will take Chinese money and throw in a Chinese actor to break that market overseas, here is an example of a Chinese film taking U.S. dollars and hiring a famous white actor to give it North American appeal. It wasn’t a huge success but it wasn’t a massive flop either.
But I also couldn’t help but feel that, for all the controversy and experimentation, the film played it too pleasant and too safe. It tried to be for everyone (but China first!), and in the end it didn’t speak strongly enough to anyone.
Clearly they shoulda put Donnie Yen in it.