China panders to US audiences with wanna-be blockbuster

The advertisements being dragged around San Francisco on Muni buses  were how it first gained my attention. I looked on in horror at the anglo face of Matt Damon, front and center of the advertisement, for this Chinese film. I braced myself for a white-savior monstrosity, as morbid curiosity spurred me towards the downtown AMC Theaters on Van Ness. Spoilers ahead.

The Great Wall Poster

Movie Review – The Great Wall

The Great Wall was produced under interesting circumstances. It was directed by Zhang Yimou, a celebrated moviemaker from the Mainland, and produced by Legendary Entertainment, a production house acquired by the Wanda Group in 2016. Although Legendary Entertainment is technically based in California, its parent-company Wanda Group is a major Chinese holdings company, founded by the richest man in China, Wang Jinlian, and as it turns out, owns the majority share of AMC Theaters, where I saw the film.

Given the complex cultural context in which the production of this movie took place, I wondered what I would make of The Great Wall, a Chinese production co-staring US movie star, Matt Damon, alongside well known Chinese actors like Andy Lau and Tian Jing? While the movie itself ultimately had problems, I still appreciated the attempt of the producers to create a movie for a global consumer audience. The Chinese market is usually flooded with movies out of Hollywood, so it was interesting to have the opposite perspective of consuming media that was deliberately altered for American tastes.

Pandering to US Audiences

Having been filmed in China by a Chinese director, with a plotline which is made up entirely from its Chinese cultural heritage, this is essentially a Chinese movie. The invasion of the mythical taotie beasts into the ancient capital of Bianliang is in no way part of the American dialectic and The New York Times suggests that the addition Matt Damon  is a unique instance of the Chinese movie industry pandering to the United States, instead of the other way around.

Leaving the theater following the movie showing, my friends and I joked about the bad CGI, the minimal backstory, but mainly that Matt Damon didn’t really belong in the film–we fancied that he had been “shoehorned” into the movie. This last observation turned out to be consistent with what the producers of the film have said themselves–in the New York Times, Director Zhang Yimou said himself, “If we didn’t have Matt Damon, if we didn’t speak English in the film, then it would just be a purely Chinese film.”

Another instance of pandering to Americans is the lack of a love story. I recalled recent memories of Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, where the lack of a love story baffled consumer audiences and delighted feminists. This seemed like a copycat move intended to illicit a similar reaction from US audiences. From what I know of Chinese film, it is chalk full of drama—letting this plot eek through sans romance was almost definitely a revision for a foreign audience.

A third element on The Great Wall was the contrived vocabulary lesson surrounding the concept of xinren, or“believe” in English. This is not a cultural concept in China and is a lazy vehicle used to teach American audiences an exotic Chinese word. Why not use the Chinese notion of yuanfen, or “fate”? Fate is not too foreign of a concept to teach yet, but yet they chose “believe,” which is more a Christian notion than anything else.

Overall, my friends, family, and I found the movie a fairly weak play for this Sino-American movie venture. There was no food for thought or reflections to be had among the endless CGI. But although the movie itself was lackluster, I appreciated the attempt to create a movie for an international consumer audience out of a Chinese story. It might have fallen short of the mark this time, but maybe as the Chinese film industry makes more attempts at international blockbusters, they will learn to trust their international audience more and try to dig into some richer storylines.