A Great Wall
Directed by Peter Wang
At the Nickelodeon
Peter Wang--the man responsible for much of the light-hearted A Great Wall--took a lot of risks with this movie. To begin with, the movie is the first American film to be produced in conjunction with the People's Republic of China. Second, the movie doesn't really have a plot. And, to cap it all off, about a third of the actors are amateurs who were practically chosen from the streets of China.
But none of this seems to matter. A Great Wall, Wang's first directing effort, is one of those little-known pictures that will only get better with age.
The movie at first seems bland, a simple, boring tale: Leo Fang (Peter Wang) decides to return to China with his family to visit his sister whom he has not seen since the Revolution. Affluent and Americanized, Fang retains little of his heritage other than the language and memories. Meanwhile, Mrs. Chao (Shen Guanglan), Fang's sister, awaits his visit in a land full of history and change.
Grace Fang (Sharon Iwai), Leo's wife, lives a stereotypically Chinese-American life, doing aerobics at the health club and coming home to make noodle lo mein. Mrs. Chao, on the other hand, enjoys a close rapport with her daughter Lili (Li QinQin) and status as the wife of a high-ranking party official.
Their children are equally diametrical. Paul Fang (Kelvin Han Yee) devotes his time to football and a Caucasian girlfriend. Lili spends her time in dutiful pursuits, studying English for the college entrance exams and giggling with her girlfriend.
When the Fangs arrive in China, East meets West and, as expected, both learn a bit from each other. Fang replaces his jogging with Mr. Chao's workout, which is as much mental as phsyical; Lili adopts some of Paul's arrogance, to the dismay of her parents; and Paul remembers some of his childhood ping-pong expertise, eventually going head to head with Lili's beau in an area youth tournament.
Wang saves the movie from becoming a typical clash-of-cultures, mix-of-cultures, everyone-learn-something picture. As Fang, Wang could be playing himself. He seems so natural, that sometimes the movie seems like an documentary. And Wang's cinematographical direction is simply beautiful.
Shots of Peking show the ignorant Americans the charm and history that the city holds as well as its seamier side. Lili and her friend bike down tree-covered boulevards, somehow always managing to stay a bit ahead of the more modern buses behind them.
The cinematography reaches its peak in the paddle-off between Paul and Lili's boyfriend, Liu (Wang Xiao) as the former fights to prove himself true to his heritage and the latter to retain his girlfriend and his title as ping-pong champ. Showing the anguish and competitiveness of both contenders, this scene goes beyond a mere ping-pong contest and touches both characters at their souls.
Besides Wang, the other actors help make this movie a true slice of life and not a cliched fable. A registration clerk in a Peking hospital, QinQin as LiLi seems as real as the girl next door. Hiding behind pigtails and a teasing smile, QinQin makes Lili more appealing to the audience than any other character in the movie.
Both Guanglan and Iwai, who play Fang's wife and sister respectively, also seem to bring their own experience to their roles. In one particularly memorable scene, Grace and Mrs. Chao try to become acquainted even though neither can speak the other's language. Grace tries to make up Mrs. Chao's face, while Mrs. Chao measures Grace for a dress, Chinese style. Although no words are exchanged, this scene brings the two women and the two cultures noticeably closer.
But don't go to see A Great Wall if you are expecting to see a Comedy, Tragedy, or any movie of a set genre. This movie belongs to no genre; it is only about life and people who live. There are no morals at the end of this movie, and no great climax, only a rather routine happy ending.
However, this movie is one of the best of the year in a warm, surprising way. It portrays life as it is lived, people as they are, with no pretentions or glamour. A Great Wall captures both cultures, contrasts them and comes to no conclusion other than that life, with all its vagaries, is worth living.
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