Chinese filmmakers eye the long game with The Great Wall

The Great Wall (starring Matt Damon) may not be great, but it is at least a fascinating milestone in the shift of economic power in the movie world. Courtesy Universal Pictures The Great Wall (starring Matt Damon) may not be great, but it is at least a fascinating milestone in the shift of economic power in the movie world. Courtesy Universal Pictures

Zhang Yimou’s The Great Wall doesn’t really need to be “reviewed” in the traditional sense. It’s a dumb movie about monsters invading medieval China and the brazenly anachronistic army tasked with staving it off, like someone fell asleep during The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers and attempted to recreate the Battle of Helm’s Deep based only on the subsequent dreams. Nothing else really needs to be said about the substance of it, other than acknowledging the decent creature design and fabulous costumes.

The Great Wall
PG-13, 120 minutes
Regal Stonefield 14 and IMAX, Violet Crown Cinema

No, what The Great Wall needs is a graduate thesis titled “Cinematic Postnationalism in an Era of Political Isolationism.” See, despite the initial trepidation around Matt Damon’s starring role, concerns about whitewashing do not even begin to scratch the surface of what’s going on here; The Great Wall is the Chinese film industry asserting itself as a producer of blockbusters, not just a consumer. For those unfamiliar with the modern movie biz, when it comes to big-budget epics, no one really has his eye on the American box office anymore, as the real target is China, India and Russia. This is a large part of why franchises no one seems to care about keep getting sequels, like Mission: Impossible and the upcoming Warcraft sequel, because moviegoers in China demand it.

The same gears are clearly turning in the minds behind The Great Wall, a movie that is going to be a smash hit whether anyone stateside sees it or not. And most likely, no one will. It’s a film made strictly for Chinese audiences that enjoy Western films, not vice versa. Damon plays a wandering mercenary named William, who has come east with his partner in crime, Tovar (Pedro Pascal), in search of the mythic black powder. When night falls, they are attacked by an unseen beast that kills all but William and Tovar, leaving a severed hand as the only indication of its monstrous nature. The pair bring the hand to a gate of the legendary Great Wall, which is guarded by the massive Nameless Order. The two are taken prisoners, but when the wall is attacked by a horde of hideous creatures known as the Tao Tie, they prove themselves in battle and are accepted by their former captors.

From here, William forms a bond with Commander Lin (Jing Tian), a brave warrior who has dedicated her life to preventing the monsters from the mountain from reaching the capital. The Tao Tie do nothing but consume and leave devastation in their wake—a somewhat obvious metaphor for unchecked capitalism, but it’s not as though American propaganda is any more subtle. William begins to regret his initial intent and joins the battle to defeat the Tao Tie.

William is not a white savior—quite the opposite. His function is to arrive and be amazed by the unity and values of his host nation before adopting them as his own, then leave with nothing but the wisdom he gained in the fight. Look at this film from the perspective of a Chinese audience: The cast is filled with pop stars, teen idols and action heroes, and along comes one of the biggest celebrities in the world who is in awe of them all. It is possible that one of the six writers (an incredible list that includes Tony Gilroy, Max Brooks, Edward Zwick and Marshall Herskovitz) intended him to be a Dances with Wolves-style appropriator, but that is nowhere to be found in the final product.

Director Zhang Yimou is one of the most amazing stylists working today, with a rich appreciation for the intersection of visual flair and philosophical depth as seen in Hero and House of Flying Daggers, and his sense of style is not lost here, with the spectacular outfits and choreographed battle scenes. Making a brainless action movie that rests almost entirely on star power might turn some people off, but is that any worse than Kenneth Branagh making Marvel movies?

Playing this week

Regal Stonefield 14 and IMAX
The Shops at Stonefield, 244-3213

Arrival, A Cure for Wellness, Disney’s Newsies: The Broadway Musical!, A Dog’s Purpose, Fences, Fifty Shades Darker, Fist Fight, Hidden Figures, John Wick: Chapter 2, La La Land, The Lego Batman Movie, Rings, Split

Violet Crown Cinema
200 W. Main St., Downtown Mall, 529-3000

2017 Oscar Nominated Shorts, Fifty Shades Darker, Fist Fight, Hidden Figures, Jackie, John Wicks: Chapter 2, La La Land, The Lego Batman Movie, Paterson, Strike A Pose

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