The Great Wall is, whilst not a bad film by any metric, a vastly more interesting film to unpack than it is to actually watch.
I’m not sure if you’re aware of this, but China is becoming quite the player on the world’s stage right about now. It’s the world’s leader in exports, it’s flexing its military might a lot more, and it’s managed to terrify the United States of America – well, at least the hateful paranoid berk running that Titanic at the moment, anyway – into believing that it’s under some kind of grand threat to its very existence. Oh, yeah, and it’s also becoming vastly more important in the realm of film receipts. China has managed to turn many domestic bombs into massive international successes almost singlehandedly – Warcraft you may already know about, but Resident Evil: The Final Chapter just scored the biggest opening weekend for any American film released in China ever, over 4x the amount that the film has currently managed to rake up in America across its entire run so far – whilst keeping other films and franchises from being all-conquering behemoths due to not quite taking off there for whatever reason (Finding Dory).
Of course, often lost in the midst of all of this is the fact that China has its own booming film industry, as well. In fact, 2 of last year’s top 25 highest grossing films worldwide were Chinese productions: Stephen Chow’s The Mermaid (#13) and Raman Hui’s Monster Hunt (#21). Most of us don’t hear about them, however, due to them being, well, Chinese films and, setting aside the obvious cultural specificity that gives them extra resonance for Chinese audiences but may be lost on English speaking ones, foreign films just don’t get much traction or attention in America or Britain. I get the sense that such a thing may change soon enough, even if that major Hollywood crash I have been practically begging for over the past 2 years still has yet to come to pass, but in the meanwhile, The Great Wall is here to try and rep Chinese film on the mainstream Western stage.
Directed by one of the premier Chinese filmmakers (Zhang Yimou), boasting the biggest budget of any Chinese film ever ($135 million), and fronted by one of America’s biggest movie stars (Matt Damon) yet ultimately playing second-fiddle to mega-stars and rising stars of the Chinese/Hong Kong film worlds (like Andy Lau and Jing Tian), The Great Wall really does represent A Moment in time. A calling card for Chinese filmmaking – co-produced by American production company, Legendary, that is now owned by Chinese conglomerate Wanda Corp – precision pitched for maximum potential crossover appeal without diluting its distinctly Chinese feel, themes, and approach to filmmaking. This is China standing on the world’s stage, arms outstretched, demanding you look upon its wares and pay respectful homage, for they too can make intensely mediocre and highly-expensive mainstream blockbuster action movies just as well as Hollywood can! Wait, hang on a minute…
Unfortunately, The Great Wall is one of those contradictory movies that are fascinating to unpack and examine as cultural documents or for the subtext they feature, but are actually kind of a bore to sit through otherwise. It’s not that the film is bad in any real way – in fact, there are a few things that it does really well, some arguably better than the big boy American blockbusters it wants to stand alongside of – more that the film is just kind of “there” in terms of legitimate narrative engagement. Its action sequences unexciting, its characters flat and uninteresting, its steadfast refusal to break new ground or take any real chances ultimately stifling my potential engagement. As a film to watch, The Great Wall is solid yet unspectacular and not very interesting. As a film to examine, The Great Wall is fascinating.
What we have here, you see, is a slice of devout pro-Communist China propaganda being sneakily dressed up in a (theoretically) more Western-appealing White Saviour narrative. Matt Damon’s William Garin is technically our protagonist, and he does go on his own arc and get many a moment where he will pick up a spear or a bow and charge heroically into battle, but he isn’t actually the hero of the story. That would be Jing Tiang as Commander Lin, whom transitions from leader of the titular Wall’s Crane Guard into the General of its Nameless Order, a special military force trained from birth to protect China from a vicious, seemingly-endless race of insatiable and unstoppable creatures called the Tao Tei. Damon is a Western mercenary of incredibly indeterminate accent who, along with Pedro Pascal’s Tovar, has travelled to China having heard talk of mysterious black powder that, once ignited, can wipe out whole battalions like nothing, which he wishes to steal and sell back in the West. William and Tovar, however, arrive at the Great Wall two days before the next scheduled Tao Tei attack, which William ends up being conscripted into helping stop.
Said help ends up boiling down to “occasionally fight a few Tao Tei” and very little else, as it turns out. William’s, and by extension Damon’s, real role here is to act as an audience surrogate for the might and superiority of China and its Communist ways. Most of his dialogue, when it’s not advancing the “plot” involving him and Pascal dealing with the only other Westerner at the Wall (Willem Dafoe for some reason), consists of him verbally extolling the power, grandiosity, and superior tactical might of the Chinese forces surrounding him. His arc throughout the film is not “how Matt Damon saves China” – he does inadvertently carry the MacGuffin that turns out to be the Tao Tei’s weakness, but it takes a Chinese Strategist to figure out why it works and how they can use it – but is instead “Matt Damon rejects the selfish tenants of Western Capitalism and embraces the selflessness and honourable ways of Chinese Communism.” We’re not talking Big Trouble in Little China levels of White Saviour deconstructionism here, more passive audiences will be able to take the film as a straightforward White Saviour narrative if they wish, but it’s definitely not the film some may have feared it would be going in.
In fact, Damon’s constant verbal praise for the ways of China ends up calling attention to the many other ways that the film openly and subtextually acts as a giant piece of Chinese propaganda. It’s there in the action, where selfish acts are swiftly punished – the finale kicks off when the (otherwise unseen) childish Chinese Emperor insists on keeping a captured Tao Tei as part of his curiosities gallery rather than letting the army study it – and only noble sacrifices, of which there are many, and teamwork can save the day, something which runs right through to the killing blow. It’s there in the back story of the Tao Tei, an alien race that the cast of the film believe was called down to Earth to wreak punishment upon a selfish and materialistic former Emperor, ultimately acting as a metaphor for the evils of Capitalism run amok and, with their rampant numbers, perhaps also overpopulation (which China has had a complicated history with). It’s there in the sheer expense on display, the frequent and constant CGI-enhanced shots of individual squadrons over a hundred strong, the ceaseless waves of Tao Tei, the visual design of the film – seriously, the framing, designs, and colour palette of this film are SUPER PRETTY, as one would expect from Zhang Yimou but which throws into sharper relief just how dull most American blockbusters look nonetheless – all proudly touting China’s deep budgetary pockets.
Hell, even the mere fact that the film is a thoroughly mediocre blockbuster, pleasant but never fully engaging and instantly forgettable as a viewing experience, may be a testament to China’s power, in its own way? Even up to now, much of the conversation about Film and its evolution in the Western world has been distinctly Americanised and focussed to such an extent that it can feel like the only game in town that matters. Years upon years of that saturation has led to many countries, China included, seeing Hollywood films as some kind of ideal – its scopes the kind of spectacle to aspire to, its stars the only stars worth caring about, everything to do with them being the gold standard in entertainment. So for China to be able to produce a film like The Great Wall, that manages to present itself as and adhere to many of the conventions and styles of Hollywood blockbusters without sacrificing a distinctly Chinese theme and undercurrent, is special, no? Considering how many other countries can try yet ultimately fail at such an endeavour?
Maybe so. Like I said earlier, though, none of this changes the fact that watching The Great Wall is just kind of an act that one can do. It inspires few thrills, few chills, few stirs of the heart, and minimal engagement as a piece of blockbuster cinema beyond the initial “OOH, PRETTY!” reaction from its gorgeous production design. It’s an interesting film in retrospect, less so in the present, as one to think about and unpack in the hours after leaving the cinema but inspiring no strong reactions whilst it actually plays out in front of you. It’s not a bad time – again, it is SUPER PRETTY, it’s nice to see real character arcs in a blockbuster for once even if they are rote as all hell, and Jing Tiang is an inarguable star in the making – but The Great Wall is far more suited to Saturday evening TV movie land or being examined as a cultural artefact than a cinema experience.