China’s Great Wall Gamble: Will Zhang Yimou’s Hollywood Co-Production Succeed with International Audiences?

There is far more to Zhang Yimou’s bilingual Hollywood-China co-production The Great Wall than CGI (Computer Generated Imagery) monster shenanigans and possible artistic redemption for the filmmaker, known for past success with Hero, House of Flying Daggers and Raise the Red Lantern. The US$150 million fantasy epic is the biggest US-China co-production ever undertaken. All eyes will be on how the popcorn flick, which stars Matt Damon, Jing Tian and Andy Lau, performs. Damon’s top billing in the film was greeted by criticism about whitewashing from Asian-American actors and activists, but these concerns have been supplanted by concerns about the film’s performance, both in the box office and as a harbinger for the future of both the Chinese and American film industries. Its success or failure will cast a long shadow.

The Nameless Order prepares for an offensive against the mythical tao tei

There’s been a lot of ink spilled about the remarkable growth of the Chinese film market in recent years. In 2015, box office receipts grew a phenomenal 48 percent — before plummeting to just 3 percent growth in 2016, which Beijing blamed in part on negative film critics. China’s status as the world’s biggest movie market will have to wait, but there’s no denying it’s already massive.

Regardless of rank, China is a market everyone wants to get into, and one that has significant influence, economically and artistically. Hong Kong filmmakers went through a period of adjustment in the years following the handover, when the industry started looking to the People’s Republic for funding (and release) and had to contend with the country’s rigid content regulations. The coveted “co-production” label that ensures release on the mainland is not easily granted; fewer than 40 non-Chinese films get released to theatres in the mainland each year. The Korean film industry has been dabbling in China for several years, with middling success; My New Sassy Girl was one of 2016’s worst films in any language. Nonetheless, Hong Kong directors found a great deal of work in China in the early 2000s, to the detriment of the local industry, in part due to ample work and part because mainland Chinese producers needed the technical skills available in Hong Kong to help grow the domestic industry.

William Garin (Matt Damon) a mercenary in search of gunpowder for profit, finds a conscience and stays on the Wall to fight the tao tei

China is impatient, however. It doesn’t want to wait any longer to be a major, international movie player, evidenced by Alibaba Group and Dalian Wanda’s purchases or partnerships with Steven Spielberg’s Amblin Entertainment and Legendary Entertainment, a major force behind The Great Wall. Legendary (The Dark Knight, Man of Steel, Godzilla, Steve Jobs) is best known for supporting Zack Snyder’s career and for 2016’s Warcraft, a massive flop everywhere in the world except China. The Great Wall is the grand experiment concocted to determine whether or not a Chinese film can take flight overseas the way The Avengers and Furious 7 did in China. Since its mid-December mainland release, the film has pulled in just under US$130 million. Not bad, but in light of its budget and compared to Stephen Chow’s all time box office winner, Mermaid, and its US$550 million, it’s under performing.

Co-produced with the China Film Group (the country’s biggest state run producer), Universal Pictures and Beijing based-Le Vision Pictures, The Great Wall ticks all the boxes Beijing demands of its content partners: it has a popular and appealing Hollywood star, impeccable special effects and a respected filmmaker at the helm. What could go wrong?

The story is set in an indistinct time and place in China, when mercenary William Garin (Damon) stumbles up to the garrison on the Great Wall looking for “black powder.” The Wall, it seems, was actually built to keep out vicious tao tei, vaguely Orc-ish green monsters that emerge from the mountain to wreak havoc every 60 years. The Wall is the only defence between the world and these creatures. Despite encouragement from his partner, Pero Tovar (Pedro Pascal, Game of Thrones), and a Western captive of the garrison, Ballard (Willem Dafoe), to steal the gunpowder and escape, Garin stays to help in the fight against the beasts.

Jing Tian as career warrior Commander Lin

This is standard monster movie fare, regardless of the Chinese mythology loosely woven in to the narrative. Accusations that Wall would be another movie where a white man saves the world (a fair concern, as the story was cooked up by Edward Zwick and Marshall Herskovitz, the producing/directing team behind The Last Samurai, along with World War Z novelist Max Brooks) are off the mark this time, as Damon is a key part of the co-production DNA and there was no way the State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television of the People’s Republic of China’s rules would allow anyone but a virtuous Chinese character to save the day. That role falls to Commander Lin Mae (Jing Tian, Police Story 2013), after she takes over the garrison when the general dies.

Jing leads a Chinese roster top heavy with superstars: Hong Kong actor Andy Lau (as a strategist), Taiwanese heartthrob Eddie Peng (Rise of the Legend), and respected veteran Zhang Hanyu (Assembly) as the general round out the cast. It’s all wrapped in richly colour blocked, visually striking package and directed with efficient and unsurprising competence by Zhang. The Great Wall is really the perfect content marriage of the world’s two biggest markets. So what’s wrong with it?

In truth, nothing is truly wrong with this movie. By the same token, however, nothing is really right. There’s a great deal of spectacle on screen, from the ornate costumes to the vivid visual set pieces, of which a funeral for the general and a zombie-type swarm are standouts. But the film could use more of Zhang’s late-period melodramatics to punch up a rather flat story that has little in the way of tension. Does anybody really believe for a second the tao tei could triumph?

Andy Lau (right) as Wang and Chinese counterpart Zhang Hanyu as General Shao survey the enemy

The Great Wall is free of the kind of pandering to Chinese audiences that Hollywood fare like Independence Day: Resurgence, Iron Man 3 and Transformers: Age of Extinction were guilty of. Western audiences resent it and Chinese moviegoers see right through it. Cynically shoehorning a Chinese character into a story, as those films did, is creative suicide more often than not. A film purpose built for two specific audiences is no less cynical, but it’s at least a bit more organic and honest about its ambitions. The Great Wall’s heavy handed praise of China’s military and engineering prowess (“Have you ever seen and army like this?” “It’s incredible!”), and the moral superiority of its central characters will no doubt rankle some viewers, but no more so than when Michael Bay (The Transformers) does precisely the same thing.

The Great Wall opens in the crucial American market in mid-February, which is traditionally a dead zone for studios looking to dump properties they expect won’t perform terribly well. So far, international audiences have demonstrated, with a few exceptions, an almost exclusive embrace of Hollywood product. Mermaid earned an anaemic US$25 million outside of China, and if Warcraft gets a sequel, it will likely be targeted at Chinese audiences. If the experiment that is The Great Wall fails, there are going to be fewer producers willing to gamble on its scale for some time to come. And we’ll all be back at square one.

Now showing in Hong Kong. Rated IIB; running time 103 minutes.

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