Even if you live outside China and have not yet been able to see The Great Wall for yourself, you’ve probably overheard or contributed to one or both of the two conversations happening around it:
1. It’s a prime example of “whitewashing”, having cast Matt Damon in the role of a white savior anachronistically riding to the rescue of Chinese imperial armies, who are besieged by regular attacks by hordes of hungry, four-legged monsters.
2. It’s a proving ground for the future viability of Hollywood-Chinese co-productions, the most fully co-operative commercial filmmaking venture between the world’s two biggest film industries.
These are both interesting discussions. Neither of them tell you whether or not you will have any fun while you’re watching the film. So, let’s get them out of the way before turning to the film itself:
Whitewashing is when a Caucasian actor is cast in a role that should, by rights, tradition, cultural accuracy, or textual precedent, should have gone to a non-white actor. It is a problem because it further reduces the visibility (not to mention the employment opportunities) of already under-represented minorities. One recent example saw the role of ‘The Ancient One’ in Marvel’s Doctor Strange (2016), originally an Asian male from a fictional Himalayan kingdom, given to Tilda Swinton. I’m uncomfortable with this example for two reasons: first, The Ancient One was already a tiresome stereotype, and Asian actors shouldn’t have to fight for that kind of role any more. Second, I had never before considered that there were things Tilda Swinton couldn’t do. In any case, it has long been rumoured that the casting decision was made to appease Chinese state censors, who might have been upset by a character that was marked as possibly Tibetan, or played by a Tibetan actor. The Great Wall is not a good example of whitewashing either: Matt Damon’s character is explained, however implausibly, as a Western interloper, a thief with a murky past who is looking for gunpowder and personal riches, a man who arrives not to rescue the Chinese, but to learn how to subordinate his own desires to their needs. His change of heart, his decision to stay and help the Chinese, is wholly schematic character development, and it’s all done with a half-hearted, am-I-really-doing-this?, cod-Irish accent by Damon, but it’s not racist enough to get worked up about.
Co-productions between Hollywood and China are in the spotlight because they might reveal to us the future of popular cinema under globalization. Since China has been projected to become the biggest, fastest-growing theatrical market on the planet, Hollywood has sought to get a piece of its audience. To throw in my own anecdotal evidence, I live in a second-tier Chinese city of around 9.5 million people. I live quite far from the centre, but still within a short walking distance of 4 multiplex cinemas. 2 of them were built in the past year. By bus, taxi, or metro, I can quickly go to another dozen or so big, brand new, clean and well-equipped cinemas. In fact, as I write this, China is claiming that it now has more screens than any other country in the world. And it’s cheap. I saw The Great Wall in IMAX 3D in opening week and paid 50RMB for the privilege. That’s about $7US, or £6GBP. Plus, I can take my kids for free. Yes, really. If I want to guarantee them a seat, I can pay, but as I already said, there are lots of theatres, and they’re never full. Plenty of room to spread out. The point is, Hollywood studios want and need to get their movies in front of these potentially vast Chinese audiences: in turn, Chinese audiences frequently seem keen to watch Hollywood movies. However, foreign films are impeded by a couple of important factors:
- Quotas that restrict their numbers to 34 each year. This was a 5-year deal negotiated with the WTO in 2012, meaning that it comes up for renegotiation in 2017. It’s possible the quota will expand, allowing in more imports. It’s equally possible that it will stay exactly where it is. Films can get around the quota if they are made as co-productions with Chinese studios (with all of the strings attached), which can also increase the cut of the box office returned to the foreign producers. But foreign producers see much smaller returns on their ticket sales in China than they would do back home, and the Chinese industry is still set up to favour local product wherever possible, even if it means shifting the release dates of Star Wars to keep it clear of big Chinese releases. And at the most lucrative times of year, especially the Spring Festival (Chinese New Year), only Chinese films have a chance of getting into theatres at all.
- Strict and often arbitrary state censorship (Ghostbusters  was rejected because it contains superstitions elements, i.e. ghosts, but Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them got the full red-carpet welcome despite the prominence of magic and, er … fantastic beasts). There is no ratings system, so all films have to be suitable for a general audience. Sex, drugs and nudity are more tightly curtailed than violence. But films with overt political messaging are turned away, and China has indicated that it will further restrict content it deems troubling, including homosexual relationships and crime plots where criminals go unpunished (it all sounds a lot like the Motion Picture Production Code [1930 – 1968]). Any filmmakers wanting to ensure entry into the Chinese market might have to start regulating their content to meet the dictates and whims of the Chinese state.
This is even before we factor in anything like cultural differences. Some types of films just don’t translate well for foreign audiences. Chinese studios are drawing upon the talent, experience and expertise from other industries, drafting in filmmakers from abroad, especially from Hong Kong, which has run its own ferociously popular and productive homegrown production houses for decades, but also from Europe and the USA. I get the impression that once they’ve figured out how to make commercial movies efficiently, they’ll have less use for co-productions. Their plan has long been to make films that will be able to please audiences beyond China, to conquer international markets. These attempts will of course find themselves limited by the same stifling restraints they’ve been putting on foreign imports for all these years. They’re also naive about the willingness of, say, American audiences to watch foreign films, or to stomach propaganda about the nobility and modesty of legendary Chinese heroes – they’re too busy fine-tuning their own superhero comic universes to muster up interest in the Monkey King. And while The Mermaid was a huge box office hit in China, it was simply too weird for most foreign audiences: its lurches in tone from slapstick comedy to cutesy romance to histrionic, bloody violence and back again might be exciting to some, but are hardly going to be marketable to audiences who expect evenness of tone, internal narrative logic and genre line-toeing. Ironing out all of these differences in the rules, both regulatory and cultural, will be essential in achieving the dream of a space for China-US co-productions.
Which brings us round to The Great Wall. Jeez, sorry it took so long.
[I just want to hurriedly interject the point that my primary source of frustration with the film industry in China is that it is failing to foster anything recognisable as a ‘film culture’: it’s growing an audience, true, but the regulatory strictures are hostile to experimental cinema, or even films that can truly surprise or depart from formulae. It means that films in China are increasingly slick in their production values, but frequently schematic in their execution, tame in their messages and stultifyingly unambiguous in any moral, political or philosophical arguments they might try to put forward. OK, that’s it, we can really get back to The Great Wall now.]
You probably just want to know whether this big event movie, the most expensive film ever made in China, is any good, regardless of whatever cultural significance it may carry. Well, it’s OK. S’alright. It is set to elicit satisfactory feedback from most audiences. It is too familiar to be truly exciting: every character’s turning points are telegraphed well in advance, with no twists or surprises, hidden motives or ambiguous intentions. The story follows Matt Damon’s wandering warrior-crook William, and his slightly less altruistically inclined sidekick Pero (Pedro Pascal – Game of Thrones fans will be happy to see him back with his skull intact), who start out as captives of an army stationed on The Great Wall of China. When they discover that the Wall is under siege from the Taotie, four-legged beasts of legend that swarm across the land, devouring any meaty people in their path and feeding their semi-digested food to their queen. William and Pero have to decide whether to stand and fight alongside their Chinese hosts, or to use the next attack as a cover for their escape. Meanwhile, William develops a tentative relationship with Commander Lin Mei (Tian Jing), the brave and principled warrior who soon finds herself at the head of a mission to destroy the Taotie and prevent them from reaching the capital city of the kingdom.
The Great Wall begins with the Legendary Pictures logo superimposed over an extreme long shot of the planet Earth (this has itself displaced onscreen the Universal Pictures planetary logo, which followed the titles of a bunch of other production companies). The camera pushes in on the world until the Great Wall becomes visible. The CG tracking shot continues through the clouds for an astonishing fly-by of the Wall in all its glory. If you’ve ever seen the Great Wall of China, you’ll know what an astonishing visual impression it makes, snaking across the peaks of a hundred mountain ranges for some 23,000 kilometres. So, it’s a little disappointing that not a frame was shot at the actual location. Instead it was shot in Qingdao, not far from where I’m writing this, where sections of wall were built.
This is a neat opening, not only because it plays upon the famous misconception that the Great Wall is the only man-made structure visible from space (it’s not visible to the naked eye, and wouldn’t be the only thing visible if it was), but because the Chinese/American production logos are a spectacular symbol in themselves. Legendary Pictures! Universal! Statements of grandiose intent if ever there were any. Legendary is an American media corporation now wholly owned by China’s Wanda Group. It is becoming one of the leaders in these kinds of transnational productions, out of opportunity, out of necessity, and out of duty to its new parent. The Great Wall is a film in search of a new language of co-production – how should different aesthetics and narrative conventions be reconciled to address transnational audiences? It seeks out a story that is meant to be both legendary and universal (oh, god, please stop me before I pun again). This project is baked into this story about two groups (“Westerners” and Chinese) learning mutual respect and trust, and uniting to achieve a common goal of survival. The problem with universal stories is that they can often appeal widely, but can’t really employ a lot of specific detail. Even though The Great Wall is ostensibly about China, its interest in Chinese culture and mythology seems to stop at colourful costumes, some basic philosophy (“You have to learn to trust people” sounds more like the end of Manhattan than the beginnings of Confucianism, especially when played off against Damon’s rugged individualist riposte “I’m alive because I trust no-one”, which you know he’s going to shake off by the end like every other reluctant hero figure in history), military strategy and pretty mountains. Thankfully, any culturally strange moments are explained for an international audience – William and Pero actually talk to each other about what the different colour-coded sections of the army represent, and the dialogue is slowed down by near-constant translations. [In case you’re wondering, I’d say about three quarters of all the dialogue of the film is in English. The rest, even when watching in China, had Chinese and English subtitles – the first time I’ve seen that happen at a Chinese screening.]
While the military forces are shown as utterly impeccable in their manners and courage, there may be a whiff of satire in the portrayal of the emperor (we are not told which one) as a petulant little boy, surrounded by gold and concubines while thousands of soldiers outside are dying to protect him. This kind of critique of heditary power is customary in Western blockbusters, and just vague enough to mollify twitchy censors [or maybe Song dynasty emperors are fair game for a bit of ridicule, I honestly don’t know. Anybody?], but it’s about as mild in its attack as you could hope for, like skewering a bronze statue with a foam sword.
If the film’s story is nothing of note, it does allow for minimal exposition to set up its showcase combat sequences, of which there is a steady stream. This is where Zhang Yimou excels, staging elaborate battles that employ a regularly renewed battery of inventive and improbable war machines. These moments are the most fun, since they turn warfare into an Olympic floorshow of gymnastic violence, complete with teams, uniforms and rhythmic accompaniment. The Great Wall’s battlements bristle with military contraptions, most strikingly the gantries of bungee chords that launch spear-wielding women (in long blue capes, naturally) into the thick of a Taotie attack before yanking (most of) them back up to safety.
The leader of these aerobatic beast-divers is Commander Lin Mei. She’s played with stern determination by Tian Jing, who will next be seen in Kong: Skull Island, and then Pacific Rim 2, which is also shooting in Qingdao and is being tailored for the Chinese market where the first film proved more popular than it had in most territories. So, she clearly has an affinity for monster movies, and her screen persona is predicated on the graphic mismatch between the delicacy of her features and the ferocity of her fighting. But she’s the film’s main star and moral centre, devoted to the defence of her kingdom, a devotion that is never challenged or questioned. That’s fine. I don’t need to see systems of authority critiqued for the sake of it, but gripping drama is not best served by noble characters who are proven right about everything, especially their faith in the goodness and virtue of patriotic duty. Her costumes are extraordinary, though, like all of her comrades: fighting a centuries-old, daily war against toothsome dog-monsters has not worn down these people’s ability and willingness to rock up to the siege at a moment’s notice immaculately turned out in ornate armour and full make-up: these outfits are historically shonky and bordering on Flash Gordon levels of camp at times, but they make for an arresting chromatic spectacle when the vibrant ranks of soldiery clash with their green grey opponents, putting one massed, hierarchical population against another.
The Taotie themselves are one-note, snarling atrocities that hurl themselves rabidly at the Wall’s defences. Their sheer numbers are terrifying and occasionally quite spectacular, but it’s a slightly old-fashioned kind of spectacle that takes us back a few years to when the Massive software engine for handling CGI hordes, designed for the Lord of the Rings trilogy, was a novelty that many films wanted to try on for size. There are a few too many shots where they leap towards the camera, but hey, almost all who see this film in China will do so in 3D, so they might as well make the most of the format.
The Taotie are the film “digital effects emblem”, defined by Kristen Whissel as those aspects of a film’s visual aesthetic that “give stunning expression to the key themes, anxieties, and desires of both the films in which they appear and the historical moments in which they were made”. I like Whissel’s concept of the “emblem” for how it asks us to consider visual effects not as empty spectacle but as key semiotic actors in the film’s diegesis (i.e. they’re designed to embody something significant to our interpretation of the ideas and concepts behind the movie). But what the emblem means in each context still requires our interpretive work. Taotie are also mispronounced by Western actors throughout as “Taotei”. That’s not a big problem, but since I’ve learned a small amount of Chinese in the past year, I do allow myself to gloat when others make the same rookie errors as me. The term “taotie” literally means “greedy beast”, and they are certainly depicted as voracious things, all mouth, teeth and hungry snarls.
They are derived from a motif found on ritual bronze vessels from ancient China, which can be seen on their heads when they lurch into closeup. It’s a clear attempt to rebrand the CGI horde with a traditional Chinese appearance incorporated in their design, but it might also speak of a few too many ideas being stuck together in into one transnational demon.
So, what are the taotie being used to emblematise? Do they stand for the fear of an untamed population, held in check only by steadfast values, courage, and military fortifications? Are they the embodiment of excessive consumerism, or the forces of unrestrained, selfish desire that threaten to overwhelm the institutions of the state? Well, in the tradition of the contemporary Hollywood blockbuster, the film is politically non-commital: the taotie could be any, all or none of these things if you want to interpret the film as social allegory. But it is clear that their image is one of terrifying uniformity that can only be met with an equal and opposite degree of stoic unity. The Great Wall itself is a dividing line between states, a symbol of stasis and control, immoveable barrier against the headlong rush of the taotie. This is the classic visual rhetoric of disaster-movie aesthetics: a terrible force of nature assails a mighty man-made structure. While the human ranks of the Chinese military are differentiated by their colour-coded armour, the taotie are a sickly grey-green swarm, a broiling tsunami of flesh. The armies of the Wall are in turn aestheticized not as a mass, but as a beautifully symmetrical array of different parts working together to beat back the taotie horde.
The taotie’s mindless conformity in service of their queen is therefore differentiated from the collaborative conformity of the Wall’s guardians, who submit to their duties in service of the emperor because it is a noble purpose, their not inbred instinct.
The Great Wall might be a prototype for a kind of international co-production blockbuster that bows respectfully to China, its traditional culture and its vast market of air-conditioned IMAX theatres. But it might just as easily be a warning against the mass-production of delocalized event movies whose rough edges have been focus-grouped to a smooth, featureless surface that offends no national sentiments, but excites little cultural pride or fervour in the process.