When I was in school I always cringed whenever my teachers would assign ‘group projects’. It didn’t matter how old we were, what subject we were in, or how the teacher created or designed the projects. I don’t know what it is about interacting with other human beings, but when it comes to group projects we just never seem to connect, let alone speak the same language.
If you’ve ever been a student or are still in school, I’m sure you can relate to this. The project is assigned and is supposed to be this great opportunity for equal collaboration and contribution. Your teacher optimistically yet naively expounds on the benefits of group work and how this is going to be the project that actually holds every member accountable.
You know better. You know how this is going to go down. You meet up with your group for the first time and go over the assignment. All four of you have equally different yet credible and legitimate interpretations of where this project should go. You try to negotiate and compromise, but you can already feel this project being pulled four different ways. You realize your schedules don’t line up for the rest of the project timeline so you divvy up the parts and just hope and pray that when you all meet up again the day before the project is due that everyone has done their part. All noble intentions aside, you create more of a Frankenstein’s monster-esque project of loosely connected disparate parts than a finely tuned melange of ingredients that melt and meld together. More than half the time, by the end when all is said and done, some members will have disappeared altogether, others who mean well have absolutely no clue what’s going on, you’ve got still others who insist on either being backseat drivers or passive-aggressively shooting down all contributions, and if you’re lucky, maybe you’ll get paired with someone who at least brings snacks.
The point is, group projects are hot messes. And so it is with the Hong Kong/Hollywood mashup collaboration project The Great Wall. With a $135 million budget, one of China’s greatest and most prolific directors and master visual storytellers, screen legends like Andy Lau, Zhang Hanyu, and Matt Damon, The Great Wall would be China’s largest and most expensive film project ever. And much like any other group project I’ve been in or witnessed, it can have individual parts that truly shine but overall, it feels too disjointed and misdirected to create a cohesive successful movie.
First impression as you start watching The Great Wall, Zhang Yimou very clearly put his distinctive style into the direction of the movie. The movie is almost always consistently visually stunning and appealing. From the bright orange sands of the Gobi desert to the brilliantly colored soldiers of the Nameless Order, from a visual standpoint The Great Wall is gorgeous. Color has always been an important element to storytelling with Zhang Yimou’s films. I remember the bright red scarf of Zhang Ziyi’s scarf in The Road Home. The gold in the clothing, uniforms, and poison in Curse of the Golden Flower. Color was a means of separating chapters, stories, and perspectives in his epic Hero. So too is the case in The Great Wall and it works beautifully. Each division of the army, with its own particular skill sets and responsibilities and roles, is designated by the color of their uniforms. It makes the chaos of battle look like a living breathing piece of art, a constantly shifting abstract piece. No one is as purposeful or conscious of the use of color and wide roaming shots as Zhang Yimou.
The direction of the movie is very much in keeping with the tradition of Chinese epics, of which I have always been a fan. When I was younger I saw Warriors of Heaven and Earth and Musa the Warrior (which by the way, was a hugely successful collaboration film between China and South Korea). No one does grand-scale battle and historical epic drama quite like the Chinese. I highly recommend the very very long but well worth it Red Cliff. There is a theatrical cut around three hours but the original is actually a two-part three hour long each epic of which I would readily and happily devote a full day to watching again and again. So in those moments when Zhang Yimou and the almost entirely Chinese cast and crew are left to do what is the trademark of their cinema style, I am in awe. The battle scenes are wild but have a rhythm and pace to them that is still very much aware of how to tell a story. Female warriors in blue armor swan-diving into the battle, red archers firing red arrows into a sea of monsters, black armor and red blood dancing. Giant trebuchets, flaming projectiles, beautifully ornate ballistas, as an action epic The Great Wall is incredible.
The problem of course, is that it is not just a Chinese epic. It is supposed to be a collaboration. Standing on its own with its own cast and crew, this movie could have been one of the best modern Chinese action epics. But somehow in someway, they need to fit in Matt Damon.
I’m not even discrediting Matt Damon for this. Honestly I think he did his best but his role and credibility in everything is just so questionable. For starters, historically speaking I think it would make no sense to anyone why someone with an American accent would be walking around ancient China. A Spaniard, like his partner, could make sense, and we would absolutely expect perhaps an Italian like Marco Polo. Hell, I’ll even take a British or French knight. Somehow Matt Damon manages to not be any of them, though at sporadic, random times in the movie I could swear he was trying desperately to affect some sort of accent. Just didn’t make sense. I think he was going for Irish at one point.
Matt Damon’s interactions with the other characters pull the movie into different and conflicting directions. His strangely rushed and lacking any sort of context immediate flirtatious relationship with Commander Lin pulls us into awkward uncomfortable romance territory. Why does every action movie with a woman have to give her a love interest. Why can’t men and women kick butt together and be done with it. I’m looking at Pacific Rim for perhaps being the only movie brave enough to do this. When he’s with his Spanish companion I feel I’m watching a Lethal Weapon buddy cop ‘I’m too old for this shit’ action-comedy. They are way too sarcastic and snarky and casual around each other in the face of battle. Constantly exchanging derivatively sarcastic hero one-liners while exchanging blows. I fear this is what will make Avengers: Infinity War insufferable.
Overall, as a longtime Asian cinemaphile, I did actually enjoy this movie for when it could be as true to its roots as possible. There are some incredible battle scenes and Zhang Yimou’s direction and style are refreshing in the muted colors and blue/orange action hues of common Hollywood action films. No spoilers, but I do wish that a movie called The Great Wall spent the majority of its action at the actual wall. The siege scenes and technology were brilliant. I didn’t think they needed to relocate for the third act. I think for the right audience The Great Wall could be a great film. I know it is pretty much set to lose money, which is a shame. I think it didn’t know what it was trying to be, and I think it missed its audience. This is not your typical Hollywood brawler. There are real elements essential to Asian cinema here. I think somewhere in the future there could really be the potential for a truly successful and effective collaboration between the two largest cinema powers in the world. I’m imagining a 1940s gangster film maybe set in British-controlled Hong Kong. The truth is there was no need for two white guys to be running on top of the Great Wall of China but I wish that that does not become the reason why these two do not try again in the future. I wouldn’t be afraid of one misstep, especially if hopeful studios have already begun lining up some interesting prospects.
Oh, and before I forget, I do want to ruminate if just for a little bit about the claims of ‘whitewashing’ in this film. Okay look, if you want to talk about the very clear and apparent lack of Asian lead roles, that’s all well and fine and good. Ghost in the Shell definitely raises eyebrows. Doctor Strange is reasonably objectionable. But do not include Great Wall in this. I have no ill will towards Matt Damon. And you can’t whitewash a film that was produced, directed, staffed, and almost entirely funded, by the Chinese. Honestly, if anything, I felt that the Chinese parts and story were too strong and too independent to really include Matt Damon. He is, in my view, an extra. I believe the story could have successfully resolved without him, and every character and force was strongly portrayed to the point of it never feeling like Matt Damon was their white savior. Last Samurai, anyone? The guy was basically running around saying either ‘look what I can do’ or ‘what can I do’. His presence highlighted one very critical and essential piece of thinking though, especially nowadays. And that is, when you have been doing the same thing in a vacuum for hundreds of years, a fresh perspective is not only beneficial, it is necessary. What we saw here was how Hollywood wanted to sell The Great Wall to us. Matt Damon makes a lot more sense than Zhang Hanyu to a lot of people here. But this is what they were selling in China.
Notice the difference?
Man: 209 Loneliness: 33