‘The Great Wall’ Proves That Bad Writing and Chinese Mythology Are a Poor Mix
Get ready for Matt Damon and magnets to save the day.
Movie theaters in Thailand offer foreigners a unique movie-going experience. Not only do theaters eschew the traditional concept of a trailer package – choosing instead to intersperse advertisements and red band trailers seemingly at random – they also close with a prerecorded rendition of Sansoen Phra Barami, the royal anthem of Thailand. It’s an odd experience to watch an entire theater audience rise to their feet and sing along with their country’s song; the emotion present in some of their faces was owed in no small to the recent passing of King Bhumibol Adulyadej, the longest ruling monarch in the history of the country.
Why do I bring this up? Because in the two hours I spent watching The Great Wall in a Bangkok multiplex, the audience rising to sing their national anthem was the only pleasant surprise to be found.
Much has already written about The Great Wall, a Chinese-American co-production that attempts to meld one of Hollywood’s biggest stars (Matt Damon) with one of China’s most heralded directors. The films of Zhang Yimou have been submitted as China’s official Academy Awards nominee seven times in the director’s illustrious career, and on paper, the global marketability of Damon as star and Yimou as director promised a film that would appeal to multiplex audiences around the globe. Of course, the backlash against the film was immediate and obvious: by selecting a white actor for the most important role in an adaptation of Chinese mythology, Hollywood was guilty of whitewashing Chinese cinema in order to maximize their profits. In response, the cast and crew argued that they had always envisioned their film as the story of an outsider. It’s true that The Great Wall wants to tell a cross-cultural story for global audiences; the only problem is, the film is far too bogged down in its own inane storytelling to rise above its whitewashing accusations.
The film opens with William Garin (Damon) and Pero Tovar (Pedro Pascal), two European sellswords who have ventured deep into China in search of a fabled “black powder” possessed by the Chinese government. After being chased from their encampment by a strange creature, they stumble across a grand wall – one might go so far as to call it a great wall – occupied by the battalion of General Shao (Zhang Hanyu). According to Shao, he and his soldiers are the last line of defense against the taotie, a lizard-like group of creatures who Shao claims emerged from a meteor strike and immediately pillaged their way through mainland China. While the first appearance of the taotie dates back centuries, the creatures only emerge from hiding once every sixty years; the attack on Garin and Tovar stands as proof that the next invasion is imminent.
While this sets the stage for a unique exploration of Chinese mythology, what follows in The Great Wall is an awkward succession of cultural missteps brought on by tired adventure movie tropes. Garin is the textbook definition of the cinematic white savior; despite centuries of preparation and hard work, the Chinese soldiers are immediately put to shame by his physical prowess and deductive reasoning. Garin devises a workable plan to capture one of the creatures alive, wins the admiration of the battle-tested Commander Lin Mae (Jing Tian), and is discovered to have the only workable deterrent against the taotie hive-mind in the form of a magnetic chunk of rock he keeps in his rucksack. In the film’s most cringe-inducing moments, Lin Mae tries to teach Garin about the value that Chinese culture places on brotherhood over the individual, only to watch one major character after another sacrifice himself so that Garin can move one step closer to saving the day.
Sadly, but not surprisingly, the non-Asian actors in The Great Wall – the ones Hollywood assumed were needed to sell the film internationally – are consistently the least interesting part of the film. Certainly, the Chinese cast does its best with shoddy work. Zhang Hanyu adds gravitas to a relatively thankless role, and Andy Lau shines in his few scenes in the film, but The Great Wall chooses instead to focus on the tired soldier banter between Damon and Pascal’s characters, mostly in reference to past events we never see. Pascal is particularly misused as the comic relief: his only real purpose in the film is to remind audiences that Damon’s character is something of a rapscallion, thereby making his decision to fight with the Chinese soldiers seems like the conclusion of a major character arc.
It’s one thing to defend The Great Wall as a movie handcuffed by international financial considerations, but by simply slapping American action plot points over a few wuxia set pieces, The Great Wall proves each and every one of its doubters correct. Even the most charitable viewing of The Great Wall would agree that it’s aggressively lazy in how it treats its major characters. The Great Wall wants to tell a typical action story about an outsider who holds the key to defeating a powerful enemy, but since only cursory consideration given to the folklore or history of the Chinese soldiers, the end result is a movie whose bad writing gives it an ugly racial subtext. There’s the kernel of an interesting story here, and Yimou’s early fight sequences – especially where soldiers harness themselves to the titular wall and dance across the top of the battlefield – offer a fascinating glimpse at the potential intersection of American and Chinese action movies. Instead, the film serves as cautionary proof that major studios see little difference between diversity and Hollywood mediocrity masquerading as diversity as long as both sell tickets.
So there’s your damning with faint praise. The Great Wall does not set out to be an insensitive film, it simply does not know how to put in the effort to not be one. An optimist might hope that the film will serve as a sort of tipping point, an opportunity for Chinese and American audiences alike to push back on the watered down versions of their own cultures that are packaged in the guise of entertainment. An optimist might also hope that the increased scrutiny placed on questionable casting decisions will encourage studios to take a longer look at Asian or Asian-American actors before finalizing their film. A pessimist, however, will look at the $160 million-plus that The Great Wall has grossed internationally and wonder if there’s really any reason for production companies like Legendary Pictures to learn anything at all.