The Great Wall ★★★

Directed by acclaimed Chinese filmmaker Zhang Yimou (a master of rhythm and composition who has given us excellent prestige dramas such as Raise The Red Lantern and To Live, yet also evocative, extravagantly-staged Wuxia pictures like Hero and House of the Flying Daggers), The Great Wall represents a major stepping stone in the co-production of blockbuster film geared equally towards our biggest Western and Eastern markets—it’s also essentially a remake of Tremors. Try and reconcile that for a second. Having finally experienced what is fundamentally a $150m b-movie, it’s easy to see why this was an impossibly difficult film to market, and why, for the American marketing in particular, they chose to just go with a simplistic “Matt Damon… fighting things… in China,” which was understandably rejected. We’ve all seen The Last Samurai. But what a lot of those same critics didn’t seem to take into account was that a film isn’t just marketing (unless we’re talking about Suicide Squad), and this “white savior” nonsense they reduced Zhang’s vision to in an attempt to sell tickets doesn’t capture what’s truly happening in this film on any level.

If anything The Great Wall is actually the inverse of what people accused it of being. Matt Damon stars as a European mercenary named William, to be sure, but his role in the narrative (alongside the two other Westerners, Pedro Pascal’s Tovar and Willem Dafoe’s Ballard) is to represent Western interest in the East as, at best, dubious and misguided. All three are depicted as fundamentally selfish to varying degrees of danger, and at least two of them smell very, very bad. When the film opens their mission is to steal a new legendary weapon invented by the Chinese called ‘black powder’, more commonly known as gunpowder, but before they can do so they are attacked in the night by a mysterious creature and captured by the Nameless Order, the Chinese forces that occupy and maintain the titular wall. It’s at this point where things get kind of bonkers. The Western ‘heroes’ learn that the Great Wall was primarily designed to fend off flesh-eating extraterrestrials that rise from their glowing green cave mountain every 60 years to remind the Chinese of their sins of the past. And it’s here where Zhang’s camera comes alive.

Though certainly a film born from the corporate boardrooms of two distinct countries Zhang’s voice can’t help but impose, his filmmaking has always been one of deliberate pageantry and vaguely questionable nationalism (consider Hero, or the gorgeous Beijing Olympics ceremony, so it makes sense that among his finest visual accomplishments is a glorious ode to Chinese military might, its proficiency, its nobility, its magnificence. More is said here in a montage of color-coded soldiers implementing battle strategies than in any line of dialogue from the script, a work attributed to six different American writers. Zhang paints his action as a sea of armor, arrows and bungee jumping warrior women wielding spears, of commands and actions, drumming and self-sacrifice, a unified vision of beauty and skill only accomplished through devoted collaborators—it’s like the battle for Helm's Deep in Jackson’s Lord of the Rings on crack. The minutiae of each image and sequence can be overwhelmingly stunning—natural mountains that more closely resemble sci-fi terrain, a pile of safety belts soaked in blood, sky lanterns carrying a loved ones soul to safety, whistling arrows (or human ingenuity) overcoming a fog of terrifying confusion, a tower of stained glass flooding hell on earth with colors (and hope). And that sense of collaboration is absolutely crucial too. The main role of the Western characters here is to gawk at the ability and achievements of the Order and then exit stage left. Tian Jing’s Commander Lin catches their eye for her balletic skills on the battlefield and unparalleled sense of duty, she’s unquestionably the real hero of the story, but Andy Lau’s Strategist Wang shines as well, who though reduced mostly to plot device is an effective one nonetheless. (it’s only due to his discoveries that they stand a chance against the Taotei, those weird alien slime lizards they're all fighting). William and Tovar are shown as undeniably skilled warriors too but their skills are also shown to be deeply undermined by their egocentrism, William’s arc in particular, though awkward and stilted (Damon deploys at least 24 different variations of an Irish accent seemingly at random), is about putting his ego and need to be seen as a ‘hero’ aside and instead learn to help lift up those maybe more deserving. The action climax involves him doing this in a very literal sense. That this essentially plays as a meta allegory for future success between the East and West is no surprise, this is after all the largest Chinese-American co-production, needing hundreds of translators for the diverse crew (the dude even hired two different cinematographers, Xiaoding Zhao and Stuart Dryburgh, respectively), so it makes sense that Zhang would use it as an opportunity to preach admiration, respect and teamwork, and to illustrate the contempt we should have for the skilled that refuse to share… And to do so in the most expensive b-movie ever made is just a bonus.

Review for Cinema Vine

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