Matt Damon saves The Great Wall but can’t save it from collapsing
Since the internet was exposed to The Great Wall’s first trailer, it seems like ‘whitewashing’ and ‘white saviour’ have become just as synonymous with the film as Matt Damon and Zhang Yimou have themselves. This controversy surrounding the China/US epic will most likely damage the film’s performance at the box office, with members of the global Asian community boycotting the movie. However, can the heroic Matt Damon who saved China from The Great Wall’s monsters save The Great Wall from completely collapsing at the box office?
The answer is no.
Firstly, let’s address the elephant in the room – the extent to which the film is guilty of ‘whitewashing’ and perpetuating the ‘white saviour’ complex. Despite critics calling the film out for ‘whitewashing’ prior to its release, in hindsight, this particular criticism may have been premature. By definition, ‘whitewashing’ is the casting of a Caucasian actor for a POC character. In The Great Wall, critics claimed that by starring Matt Damon in a Zhang Yimou Chinese epic, the film must be guilty of whitewashing. However, Damon’s character, William, is not an Asian character. White actor Matt Damon played a Caucasian mercenary. Hence, by definition, the character was not ‘whitewashed’. Sorry to disappoint.
However, The Great Wall isn’t off the hook completely. The Great Wall not only showcases Matt Damon as China’s ‘white saviour’ but also manages to ridicule and humiliate the Chinese who are useless without him. For those who don’t know, The Great Wall’s premise is simple: western mercenaries venture around China searching for ‘black powder’ – AKA gunpowder. During their quest, they encounter a special division of the Imperial Army whose sole purpose is to repel the horde of monsters threatening to wipe out Chinese civilization. The entirety of the special division and the rest of the Imperial Army prove to be incapable of fighting off the monsters – a task only hero Matt Damon can somehow achieve.
The entirety of the Chinese army are portrayed as too incompetent, too weak and too stupid to fend off the mythical monsters but Matt Damon, a sole western archer, is able to kill the monsters effortlessly. Yep, The Great Wall may just be the ultimate ‘white saviour’ movie.
One of the film’s biggest appeals was its director – Zhang Yimou. Amongst Zhang’s armory of film work sits Chinese epics House Of Flying Daggers and Hero. Both films were gorgeous, gripping and glorious, showcasing the beauty of ancient China whilst stylishly capturing the magic and mystery of Chinese mythology. Similarly set in ancient mythical Chinese times, The Great Wall at least seemed to have potential for its cinematography. After all, the film was the most expensive Chinese movie of all time. Sadly, unlike House Of Flying Daggers and Hero, Zhang Yimou’s latest film somehow disappoints in the special effects department. The Great Wall itself looks like it was lifted from Microsoft’s 1997 PC game Age Of Empires, whilst the make-believe mountainous scenery looks like a college freshman’s coursework project. At best, the CGI was passable and at worst it unforgivably detracted from the film’s awe.
The Great Wall wasn’t all doom and gloom though. The fight scenes were thrilling and measured well against Zhang Yimou’s previous films. The scenery was unconvincing but ground shots looked spectacular as the grand battles unfolded. Whatsmore, whilst The Great Wall was not visually stunning in terms of CGI, the film’s costume design, was on the other hand, remarkably stunning. The vibrant colours and range of costumes were simply outstanding. Representing different roles, each of the military costumes were intricately designed and tremendously pleasing to see. Whilst the army themeslves might have been useless, they nonetheless looked like heroes.
Although the roles were hardly challenging for seasoned actors, the acting throughout the film was generally compelling. Matt Damon was convincing, as expected, and Pedro Pascal as William’s sidekick, Tovar, delivered natural comic relief. Whilst the humour doesn’t result in belly-laughing moments, Pascal certainly brought smiles to the audience. Willem Dafoe was on form too and those familiar with his previous work will know that a strong performance is his trademark.
Although the Chinese actors weren’t as convincing as the Hollywood-refined stars, none of them were poor. Andy Lau retained tension in the right moments and whilst Hanyu Zhang seemed less convincing when speaking in English, she was somewhat terrifyingly intimidating when barking at her soldiers in Mandarin. Lu Han, who played a shy and timid soldier acted well and it’s fantastic that lesser-known Chinese actors were given on-screen time in western cinemas.
Sadly, none of the characters were too likable. Even though the audience finds themselves rooting for the characters, it was difficult to emotionally invest in any of them. Damon’s character was unnecessarily cold and Hayu Zhang’s character was too dry and serious to earn any sympathy. The only character which was remotely likable was Pedro Pascal’s, but his role was largely insignificant.
Pretty costumes and fine acting aren’t enough to save the film The Great Wall from collapse. The Great Wall is littered with flaws even before the ‘whitewashing’/’white saviour’ conversation occurs – and it truly is a shame. The film was supposed to be a China/US cooperation, which had the potential to detonate the territory for more east-meets-west productions to emerge but its bitter disappointment crushes any hope of achieving this.
If anything, The Great Wall may even deter production houses from wanting to team up with partners from the other side of the world, and this deeply saddens me.