Long-awaited Chinese-Hollywood epic The Great Wall has finally hit screens in China, testing the water for a new period in US-China film cooperation.
The action adventure was helmed by superstar Chinese director Zhang Yimou, backed by Chinese-owned Hollywood studio Legendary, with a cast featuring Chinese A-listers as well as Matt Damon, making it the most expensive film ever made in China.
Hollywood has been keen to court China’s enormous viewing public, with US studios making a series of concerted plays for their share of the market. When The Great Wall was announced, the Chinese cinema box office was on a never-ending upwards trajectory, with audience revenue growing nearly 60-fold in just over a decade to 2015, and cinema development racing at a dizzying pace of 27 new screens per day. However, viewing figures have fallen consecutively for the last quarter: takings in November were down 5% on the same month a year earlier, following a 19% drop in October and a 33% annual decline in September. Nonetheless, China is still expected to become the biggest moviegoing market in the world by 2019, and state restrictions over international film screenings are pushing film-makers to find new ways to enter the market. International collaborations are an obvious solution to bypassing strict state controls. December is the busiest month for Chinese cinemas, which are hoping The Great Wall will help bring back crowds after a few months of mediocre new releases.
Fitting, then, that the film centres as much on China’s relationship with foreigners as the legend of the Taotie, a group of flesh-eating monsters who scale the Great Wall every 60 years to feed. Foreign mercenaries William Garin (Matt Damon) and Pero Tovar (Game of Thrones’ Pedro Pascal) unwittingly stumble upon the wall while fleeing tribesmen, greeted by an enormous army and the stunning sweep of the enormous structure rising from the mist.
Their claims to be traders are swiftly debunked and Garin falls over himself to demonstrate his skills a fighter, earning the gradual respect of the so-called Nameless Order and its leader, General Shao (Zhang Hanyu). After displaying an ability to leap in headfirst and slash green-blooded monsters, Garin lends his support to deputy Commander Lin (played by a wooden Jing Tian), while a baffled Tovar plans his escape with the Order’s gunpowder.
Earlier allegations of “whitewashing” seem, in the main, unfounded. The foreigners really don’t cover themselves in glory; they run, steal and trick each other, providing occasional comic relief, while the Chinese demonstrate self-sacrifice and discipline. A dishevelled Garin spends much of the film struggling to comprehend the system the Order embodies, confused and humbled by the language and the culture. His life-saving acts of heroism are returned with just as much aplomb.
Meanwhile the Order does need all hands on deck, because things get gory very quickly. Barely 15 minutes into the film, soldiers are being dismembered by Taotie in a series of high-octane battles. There are plenty of watchable fight scenes, but countless missed opportunities to create suspense. Our first glimpse of the Taotie is an intriguingly enormous green claw discovered by Tovar and Garin, but it is barely minutes before the beast is revealed in all its CGI glory.
And after that revelation, the story has little mileage. Every predictable turn comes to pass, and most major developments loom so large it’s a wonder the elite fighters don’t spot them. Aside from the nods to Chinese culture, there is little to differentiate between this and any other Hollywood action adventure.
It won’t be remembered as Zhang’s best film, but the director’s artistic touch is on display in his long panoramic sweeps and artful use of colour. Simultaneously futuristic and historic, the visual spectacle carries the film, while Zhang manages to include plenty of promised “Chinese elements”, including a beautiful shot of traditional sky lanterns at one character’s funeral.
By its end, The Great Wall leaves you with the feeling that it must be a metaphor – after all, the Taotie were, according to legend, brought down by their own greed – but hazy about what exactly the moral is. Is it a warning over rampant Chinese consumerism? A caution against marauding foreigners and invading foreign values? A reminder about the power of collectivism over individualism? Or is it really just a good old romp between goodies and baddies?
While the plot is straightforward and twists largely non-existent, The Great Wall succeeds as a no-nonsense visual extravaganza with plenty of adventure, and has been generally well-received by domestic audiences. Whether it has done enough to differentiate itself and achieve mainstream international success remains to be seen.
•The Great Wall is released on 16 December in China and 17 February in the US and UK.
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