‘Great Wall’ a Great Failure

Dir. Zhang Yimou (Universal Pictures)—1 Star


The central premise of famed Chinese director Zhang Yimou’s “The Great Wall” is that the titular structure was built to protect China from hordes of rapacious flesh-eating lizard-horse-cows called taotie (spelled “tao tei” in the subtitles possibly as a result of incorrect Romanization). According to the film, these beasts exist as a reminder of the dangers of human greed, and the great irony is that the movie is itself an example of the disaster that arises when the desire to sell movie tickets to white audiences overshadows artistic integrity and social responsibility.

When poster and trailer for “The Great Wall” were released last fall, numerous Asian-American actors and activists condemned the casting of Matt Damon, a white man, as the lead in a film set in ancient China. “We have to stop perpetuating the racist myth that [only a] white man can save the world,” tweeted Constance Wu leading actress in “Fresh Off the Boat.” Damon defended his casting, asking audiences to watch the film before judging it. “I think you are undermining your own credibility when you attack something without seeing it,” he stated at the New York Comic-Con shortly after the backlash began. Now that the film has been released, however, it seems fair to say that the criticism was more than justified.

In the interest of diplomacy, it should be acknowledged that “The Great Wall” is not a film entirely without merit. Its $150 million budget—the largest of any film shot entirely in China—was used successfully to create a visual spectacle. The cinematographic beauty of certain scenes is striking; that is, until mediocre CGI and an inundation of excessively painterly backdrops leave the film looking something like a cross between a video game and a Windows desktop background. But The film’s visual excess is the least of its problems.

The plot is so predictable that spoiler alerts seem superfluous: Special White Man William (Damon) and his friend Tobar (Pedro Pascal) are European mercenaries captured by an elite Chinese army. When monsters attack, Special White Man William dazzles the Chinese with his archery skills and slow-motion fight sequences. Special White Man William saves the life of a hairless whimpering boy-child of a soldier (Luhan). Special White Man William impresses a female commander, who teaches him about trust and honor. It is not difficult to guess who saves China from the taotie in the end.


It’s true that the film has a Chinese director and an almost entirely Chinese cast, and that it was released in China months before it premiered in the United States. However, Damon’s very Caucasian William is indisputably the hero of the story, while most of the Chinese cast is dehumanized as an anonymous though well-choreographed mass (appropriately called “The Nameless Order”) whose sole purpose is to exist as a stage set for the White Man’s moral and emotional journey. The only Chinese character to receive substantial individual screen time is Commander Lin Mae (Tian Jing), a pretty-faced trope virtually indistinguishable from the heroines of countless other martial arts films (think Tigress from “Kung Fu Panda.”) “The Great Wall” does not depict cultural reciprocity or cross-cultural understanding because its only real character is the Special White Man.

Perhaps the fact that this film was a largely Chinese production makes its clichéd tone-deafness all the more disturbing. It is disappointing that even a Chinese director takes for granted that the White Man has the face that audiences are meant to root for and sympathize with. White Man William shoots his arrow, and the yellow men stand and clap for him; in his presence, the yellow warrior women are reduced to simpering anime girls, for they are unused to the White Man’s rugged white masculinity. This film teaches lessons so insidiously ubiquitous in the media we consume that it is easy to become inured to them: The White Man must always be the main character, and all others serve merely to further his story. The White Man is a Real Man; yellow boys are scared, small, faceless. The fact that “The Great Wall” is a Chinese film does not render it innocent of perpetuating racist stereotypes. On the contrary, the film’s Eurocentric narrative suggests that the influence of colonialism is still very much present in modern China.

Filmmakers have the right, of course, to create what they see fit without taking notions of “political correctness” into account. Creating deeply harmful, socially irresponsible art is their prerogative. But even so, is a lazy smattering of colonialist tropes really art? How about 103 minutes of pandering to a white audience? Ultimately, “The Great Wall” shows the audience little more than profit-driven greed strong enough to summon taotie from the depths of the earth.


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