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Who did you think was going to headline the movie?  Andy Lau?

by Thom Yee


The Great Wall images courtesy of Universal Pictures and China Film Group

I never planned to write a review of The Great Wall.

Actually, that’s not quite true, it looked interesting enough to pencil into our schedule after its first trailer dropped, at a time still months away from its eventual release and at a point that I didn’t have to pay it much attention, but as we drew closer and closer to its opening, outrage around the circumstances of the movie only seemed to grow.  Instead of just being a movie, The Great Wall became a lightning rod of appropriation among cultural critics and mediocrity among movie critics.  It’s especially on that latter point that it seemed unlikely we would ever be discussing it at any great length here at GOO Reviews.

But this May…

We’ve been doing this GOO Reviews thing since about aught-twelve, and this is easily the worst string of early-summer new releases we’ve seen in that time.  The 2017 summer movie season started off on a very high note with Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, but since then our plans for a King Arthur:  Legend of the Sword review fell apart due to bad movie, we cancelled our Alien:  Covenant review because nobody here liked the movie enough to talk about it, and as for this upcoming week:  There are no words to express how little any of us want to see either a fifth Pirates of the Caribbean movie or a Baywatch movie with horrible reviews.

It’s not quite correct to say that we mostly only review good movies here on GOO Reviews, it’s more accurate to say that we don’t have enough bile and/or venom in our hearts to spend a lot of time on the bad ones, but there is a grey area in between where a movie isn’t great but also isn’t boring enough to ignore.  We’re not trying to be either an authoritative source of reviews here nor do we strive to be a comprehensive one, this whole thing is merely a discussion of the movies we’re interested in (while making industry contacts and picking up lucrative back-end sponsorship deals), and between the new movies I’ve just listed and literally all of the other recent movies we’ve seen that we haven’t yet reviewed (The Red Turtle, A Monster Calls, The Great Wall, The LEGO Batman Movie, Ghost in the Shell (2017), Free Fire, Colossal) … well, we didn’t want to have that big of a gap in our publishing schedule and only one of those movies was interesting enough to write about.  Also, The Belko Experiment only showed here in Edmonton for one week [WTF?] and we all missed it.  So here’s our review of The Great Wall.  You’re welcome?

What’s it about?

When dark and mysterious forces conspired to grow the Chinese movie market into a viable and significant part of the international box office, executives from Chinese and American movie studios came together to build a movie they could sell to both audiences.  Casting a white man (Matt Damon) in the lead role and conceiving of a cockamamie story involving a Chinese cultural landmark and monsters or something, And so it was that Legendary East, Atlas Entertainment, China Film Group, and Le Vision Pictures struck forth with their production, knowing full well that no matter how much the American media would decry the apparent white-man-as-saviour storyline, most of them would also never have given a movie with a Chinaman in the lead role the same attention (and that most of their articles would be written for click bait anyway).

The latest from acclaimed Chinese director Zhang Yimou (Hero, House of Flying Daggers, Raise the Red Lantern), The Great Wall is less a movie and more a reflection of where we are in the cinematic landscape.  You see, fewer and fewer people are going to the movies at the domestic box office, what with your overall costs of theatre-going rising, your media consumption choices growing (soon in VR!), your horrible, monstrous, solipsistic people talking/texting/livestreaming while the movie’s playing, and your increasing paranoia making it harder and harder to leave the house in general [or even wake up sometimes], so it only naturally falls to American movie producers to find other sources of revenue.  And it just so happens that China has lately become the second biggest movie market in the world (though things aren’t looking entirely rosy there either [are they ever?]).  That’s why you’re seeing more China-born Chinese actors in supporting roles in American movies, that’s why you may have heard of American movies having entirely different scenes in their Chinese versions, that’s why American blockbusters sometimes set entire acts of their their storylines in China.  It’s on that last point in particular, with Transformers:  Age of Extinction as an example, that we see another reason why it’s so important for American movie studios to target foreign markets, as the fourth Transformers movie actually made far less domestically than each of its predecessors but was the second highest grossing in the franchise on a worldwide basis, making $320 million in China alone.  Oh, and for those curious, Canada isn’t a big enough market to be listed separately from the United States.

great-wall-matt-damonBut you’re not curious about that, are you?  You want to know about hate.  The Great Wall has a lot of that too, at least superficially.  Now I’ve gone on and on in the past about how little the lack of Asian representation in movies bothers most of us Chinese because that’s the type of career path our culture is so intent on steering us away from anyway (self-expression I mean), but what I haven’t spent as much time on is the people who do seem to care, most of whom fall into two groups: 1) The few Asian actors trying to make it in Hollywood, and 2) Entertainment reporters trying to drum up a big fuss.  To the Asian actors, I don’t blame you, it’s tough to make it in any job where the opportunities are scarce and highly contested, and the odds are stacked against you, but might I suggest going back to school?  Maybe something with math?  Nobody’s trying to keep Asians away from math.  As for the reporters?  I guess I don’t blame you either when the public expects your work to be free and all modern publishers care about is page views.  That’s a tough industry too.  But that’s the reality.  I don’t know how many of us in real life actually care about this stuff.  Frankly most of us don’t actually care about much of anything beyond what’s right in front of us, but if the lack of Asian actors is something that’s bugging you and you’re not an Asian actor trying to find work or an entertainment reporter trying to find something to write about, then I have to seriously question how much of that is genuine and how much of that is you subconsciously diverting the hate that’s already inside of you into a cause you think is socially acceptable.

Is it any good?

I think that every culture has something about it that’s cool, and I don’t mean that from the perspective of keeping an open-minded or that we owe different cultures our respect.  I mean that there’s something slick, the cat’s pyjamas, something on a surface level that’s just so ethereally desirable that it makes us immediately look up, pay attention, and maybe even wonder how we can be a part of it.  Without carrying that thought too deeply into other cultures for which I’m not as familiar, the obvious cool thing in East Asian culture is martial arts, particularly carried through into the mysterious, mythical, and dynastic as in ninjas, Wuxia, and romantic heroes, and it’s those latter two that The Great Wall is playing with.great-wall-dynasty

There’s a scene early on into The Great Wall’s running time where the soldiers of the Nameless Order, the fighting forces charged with defending the Chinese land from a horde of monsters that rises every sixty years, gather together into their individual unit formations on the wall, its armies dressed in majestic reds, blues, purples, blacks, and yellows, each with different specialties and responsibilities in repelling the oncoming invaders, be they archers, melee combatants, or reconnaissance, and, at least if you’re open to this very specific kind of spectacle, it’s really cool and an almost breathtaking sight to behold.  You can tell that this is a proud people committed to their role as defenders, particularly when you consider the way the clockwork nature of their enemies’ every-sixty-years reappearances would lead to generational cycles of beliefs, traditions, and ceremoniality, lifetimes of discipline and training and social stratas sharply defining everything that these people are or ever will be.  There’s an entire group of warriors in blue who, at the end of a Bungie-like cord, leap down to the lowest levels of the wall, spearing whatever monsters they can before rebounding back up to the top, and you just know by the way this all-female squad of soldiers carry themselves that this is one of the most revered positions but also one of the most perilous when you see how quickly the support soldiers (in yellow) clear their support rings, covered in the bloody remains of those who didn’t make it back up, to make way for the next group to take their own leaps down into the fray.great-wall-jing-tian

And that’s about everything that’s good about The Great Wall.

If the sight of this colourful order of defenders is enough to catch your attention, the next sight you’ll probably be struck by in The Great Wall is how genuinely bad almost all of the CGI is, particularly with the monsters themselves who look like something straight out of a low-profile, early PlayStation-3-era fantasy game.  There’s just enough practical effects in the movie’s fight scenes that it’s not a chore to watch the battles, but the creatures are definitely unconvincing to the point of distraction, and, considering how much the overall scenario recalls the far, far better done Battle of Helms Deep from the Lord of the Rings trilogy, it’s hard not to feel a great sense of disappointment with The Great Wall, and that’s a feeling that only grows when you reach the movie’s end and notice that that early scene, the best scene and moment from the entire movie, takes place within its first 25 minutes.great-wall-matt-damon

As a story, The Great Wall is entirely rote, not quite predictable simply because that term implies some level of mystery but entirely by the numbers and following a well-trodden path, complete with mercenaries becoming heroes, secondary heroes temporarily betraying the greater callings of the movie, weaker soldiers eventually proving their mettle, seemingly unimportant elements introduced early that become keys to victory later, and drone-type monsters who all fall when the queen-type leader is vanquished.  There is some layer of secrecy and hidden motivations at the core of the movie and there are arcs for our main characters to go through, all just barely at the level of implying something more than what’s on this movie’s face, but nothing about The Great Wall will ever surprise you other than maybe how bad actors who’ve spent their entire careers speaking in Cantonese and/or Mandarin will sound when forced to speak English.  It’s perhaps unfair to judge an actor (like the great Andy Lau) too harshly when they’re so clearly not in their element, but some of the performances from the Chinese actors in this movie are nearly quite poor in a way that transcends language and cultural barriers.

So should I see it?

It’s as a cultural artifact that The Great Wall is probably most interesting rather than as an action/fantasy epic or an effective screenplay.  It’s a movie that was clearly designed to be simple enough to appeal to both Western and Eastern audiences, which, considering the immaturity of the Chinese movie market, unfortunately meant that it was unlikely to ever do very well received on this side of the Pacific.  But I don’t know if that lack of appeal to Western sensibilities really is that unfortunate considering how little chance there ever was of an American/Chinese co-production being embraced by Western audiences.  If they had chosen an East-Asian lead, Western audiences would most likely have ignored it, and, instead, with an American lead Chinese audiences would be more than willing to see it and American audiences would at least be talking about it.  And that’s exactly what happened.great-wall-look

If you’re compelled to frame this movie in terms of its place in our culture, I’ll simply offer that, though it features a white American man as its star (with a profoundly [and apparently intentionally] odd accent), it doesn’t necessarily elevate him to savior so much as it simply uses him to introduce us to a foreign world built on some of the classical foundations of Chinese cinema — sword fighting, wirework, and colourful, elaborate, impractical costuming — while allowing him to still be a hero in his own right.  Is the casting of Matt Damon robbing Asian actors of work?  Maybe (though the vast majority of the rest of the cast is Asian), but the truth is that rarely do American audiences attend movies with Asian leads.  It may be a relic of racist practices that causes movie executives to avoid casting actors of colour, but we also have to realize that if we believe diversity in media representation is important, then we have to support these things by actually seeing them when they become available and talking about them in a nuanced manner as if they matter (rather than continuing to treat movies as if they don’t matter the same way we so recklessly disregard everything that doesn’t affect us directly), because I sincerely doubt there are that many movie executives working today who care more about their racist agendas than making money.

For my part, as an Asian-Canadian man, I’ll say that thoughts of cultural appropriation and white saviours never once entered my mind as I watched The Great Wall.  That’s not really what the movie’s about, and, frankly, it’s not a good enough to make you think about much of anything.  It suffers from being an entirely unoriginal and fairly uneven fantasy movie that wants to be an epic without knowing how to get there and it suffers from being precisely the kind of bad that makes most people naturally dismiss it.  But, while it’s probably the worst movie I’ve seen all year, I don’t regret seeing it, it has a few good moments, and it’s far from being the movie I least enjoyed seeing.

Thom’s The Great Wall review


On the Edge

  • I know that’s not how you’re supposed to use “aught” in expressing years, but I’m going with “aught-twelve” anyway. I just think it’s funnier that way.
  • Fun fact (maybe one of the funnest ever if you’re into weird cosmic occurrences): We all know (or should know) that Martin Scorcese’s The Departed was a remake of an earlier Hong Kong movie, Infernal Affairs, but what you might have forgotten or not noticed is that the character Matt Damon played in The Departed was the counterpart of the character Andy Lau played in Infernal Affairs.  And now here they are in one movie together!  Isn’t that weird?

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