First, let me make this clear. Yes I was amongst those who was very upset over the Matt Damon factor of this otherwise Asian centric cast. Yes, I did initially plan to boycott it. Then I read about the director Yimou Zhang and what he represents for China as a filmmaker. I read his quote
In many ways The Great Wall is the opposite of what is being suggested. For the first time, a film deeply rooted in Chinese culture, with one of the largest Chinese casts ever assembled, is being made at tent pole scale for a world audience. I believe that is a trend that should be embraced by our industry.
Our film is not about the construction of the Great Wall. Matt Damon is not playing a role that was originally conceived for a Chinese actor. The arrival of his character in our story is an important plot point. 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. As the director of over 20 Chinese language films and the Beijing Olympics, I have not and will not cast a film in a way that was untrue to my artistic vision. I hope when everyone sees the film and is armed with the facts they will agree.
So…here I am, a white girl, enraged over the perceived white-washing. Then I get the director of the 2008 Beijing Olympics, the Jet Li classic Hero, House of Flying Daggers, Curse of the Golden Flower, and so many more telling me give it a chance.
So I did.
The question is – how true was the statement or was it just PR?
Let’s get the big question out of the way. Is Matt Damon another White Savior trope?
First for those who don’t know, the trope is the idea of “white man saves all” – even Game of Thrones hits this with Dany and the slaves of Meereen. Some movies even lampshade it, “You can do anything. You’re white.” (Ghost and the Darkness). There’s waaaay too many factors that play into why this exists, why it still exists, and why people care or don’t care about it.
So does the movie do it? Yes….and no. It really rides a delicate balance between both sides of it, I think it does lean a lil to the wrong side, but just by a notch. His impact to the story is definitely there, he is our audience PoV character; but there are a few elements of the trope he doesn’t hit and the movie does avoid rather well. So in that respect – well done.
To the second point – could it or should it have been done with another ethnicity? Eh….I agree with the director on this one. He is but one component and his actions do not take away from the movie, nor would someone else particularly add to it. That’s the trick. He doesn’t take away, but casting someone else doesn’t add – when all but three members of the cast are Chinese.
That out of the way? Good.
So let’s talk the movie. It is a joint American and Chinese production and I have to say it shows. There are so many elements of great productions I have seen from China that are here, but there’s a heart and overarching symbolism and depth I found missing. Maybe not missing, but not as fulfilling as I think it could have been. I’ve talked about the director and his accolades and that alone I believe elevates the movie to the level it hit. There are some magnificent shots and yes even nuance in some of the performances I don’t expect from Stateside productions.
There are the brilliant colours of the armies, the long sweeping camera moves, and more extras than you would believe making a noted difference in the film. The enemy is of an interesting design, origin, and weaknesses – but ….not wholly original. There will be those who go “oh this reminds me of this…and this aspect this.” They aren’t wrong, but it’s ok. Not everything has to be 100% original. Few things are.
The script. Hmm. It hits the three writer rule and beats it upside the head like an overfilled pinata. Six writers; starting with three story credits to Max Brooks (World War Z novel), Edward Zwick (Jack Reacher 2, director Last Samurai) , and Marshall Herskovitz (Jack Reacher 2, screenplay Last Samurai). Three screen play credits follow – Tony Gilroy (who may be surgically attached to Matt Damon now after all the Bourne movies), Doug Miro (The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time), and Carlo Bernard (The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time).
How do I parse this out? 3 really good writers give us a story, of heroes on a wall. Make us care (Brooks is really good at that) and figure out how to have multiple heroes with their own arcs in the film, even if they are minor turns in the end. The polish is added by Matt Damon’s friend (I would guess he was asked to help by Damon, but I could be wrong), and the writers of two fairly decent Disney bombs; granted I like Sorcerer’s Apprentice but PoP:TSoT….is just bad. Considering I think Gilroy may be at fault for some of my displeasure with Rogue One – I kind of want to blame some of the choices in script on the trio of screenplay. It’s a personal inclination based on all bodies of work known – then again Zwick did give me the rather bad Jack Reacher sequel so I am back to I don’t know what to do on this one.
The script is serviceable with all the turns you expect. All the lines of dialogue you expect. All of the surprises you expect (yeah I said it). All of the elements you expect. It works. It’s not great. It’s not bad. It just is.
Acting? Yes. Acting. It happens here. Let’s begin with Damon. We all know he can act. We all know he can do physical. I just have absolutely no idea why he decided to try an accent. I can’t even place the accent and I am pretty good at those. If anything I would have to say Saxony? I think it’s supposed to be some kind of nordic/germanic based English – but I just am not sure and it is a touch distracting. Pedro Pascal (Oberyn Martell) is enjoyable and I am glad to see him after Game of Thrones; while we get a surprise paying for a new car performance from Willem Dafoe.
Lu Han carves a niche for himself as Peng Yong and I could see good things ahead for him if he desires. It is impossible to look away from Andy Lau’s (Infernal Affairs, Shaolin – a must see) performance as Strategist Wang; but if he is impossible to look away from then one can only stare while Jing Tian (Special ID) is on screen. It has nothing to do with her looks (she is beautiful), the vibrant blue of her amazingly crafted armor – but everything to do with the presence she brings to screen. I will tell you she plays Commander Lin Mae, but when she’s on screen I buy it.
This is where the last half of the movie fails. So much of the characters, the power of them, their unique styles and way of being seems to be left behind as the movie rises to the middle of Act II and then is gone the rest. It makes highlights but never quite recaptures the elements the beginning had me leaning forward in my seat to see and even feel for how a particular element was shot.
Which brings me back to a weakness of American productions by comparison to their Chinese counterparts in this genre. Let’s take Hero. It could only end the way it did, but you felt something every step of the way. Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, you never lose what makes them unique. Here it falls apart in spectacle that diminishes the movie.
The movie got an emotional reaction from me. I was leaning forward more than a few times as it played out. That absolutely graduates it from “meh” to at least mediocre. My disappointments with it are enough to take it from a solid good down a notch.
In the end we have a generally well constructed, well shot, well acted fantasy piece with a mythology we are not familiar with and characters we want to be familiar with. If the biggest failing is that it doesn’t deliver on letting me really feel them all the way beginning to end – there are worse things out there.
I agree with Zhang Yimou – we should do more productions like this. I also am glad I gave it a chance.
Should you see it?
If you are a fan of Sentai style films, Chinese cinema, or just in the mood for a decent pop corn flick – sure. Matinee maybe – possibly full price if you are feeling froggy.
I know a lot of folks won’t and that’s a shame. It’s absolutely serviceable. It will not make its budget back Stateside unless a miracle happens.
Is it worth High Def? XD, etc?
Act I and part of Act II indicate yes. Just make sure the theatre is on the newer end. The screen at my showing was a touch dusty and when the vibrant colours of the army walk by it was noticeable.
Will you buy it?
Pretty good odds.
Why didn’t you see A Cure for Wellness? I heard it was good.
Me too! But sometimes I need popcorn and fluff. This movie delivered that. When I am in the mood to think some more and wince some – so probably next week I will see A Cure for Wellness.