The Great Wall (2017) has been dismissed by many critics as a whitewashed film lacking any story. However, I believe Zhang Yimou’s blockbuster has been subject of an unfair conclusion, based on unrealistic expectations.
The Great Wall begins with a band of rogue western mercenaries, travelling to find ‘black powder’. The band is attacked by some unknown creature – two mercenaries survive and manage to hack off the creature’s hand. As they are being chased, they stumble upon the Great Wall and are captured. It turns out the Wall’s army are preparing for a siege by thousands of those very creatures. The film follows the story of the mercenaries and the army trying everything to survive the siege.
The Chinese-directed film does cast Matt Damon as a talented archer, but he is no white saviour. Indeed, the Western characters throughout the film are portrayed to be shallow and selfish, on a quest to steal world leading Chinese technology. It would be interesting to ask the critics and moviegoers shouting ‘whitewash’ how many Chinese language films they watch. The Western characters provide a window into a narrative rich in Chinese legend, as well as some amusing chemistry at times.
The plot itself is no less meaty than your average action film. The evolving tactics of the siege are interesting enough, but we may have identified with the protagonists more if we learnt more about their origins
Visually, the spectacle is a triumph. The costumes and sets are ornately colourful, and the CGI monsters move at breakneck speed. The dialogue is sparse but intentional, full of metaphors for the discerning listener. Chinese discipline is contrasted with Western individualism. The Chinese empire’s superior technology is a nod to a history too often forgotten in Western education. Women play a key role even in battle, a role working to their acrobatic strengths over men.
Framed by these contrasts, a subtle theme is the emotional evolution of Damon. He begins as the stereotypical mercenary, fighting for any ‘flag’ – a welcome break from most of Hollywood’s nauseating heroes. But, as the Chinese warm to him, he warms to the Chinese. He begins to value trust and unity in battle, and begins to take on the responsibility to others that comes with his fighting abilities.
Perhaps a reason for the film not succeeding in the West is because it celebrates Chinese culture so much. For me, an ethnic minority viewer with a passing interest in non-mainstream history, the film left me in awe of Chinese efficiency and in hope for a bright future for Chinese-US cinematic collaborations.