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Monster Film or Monstrous Film?
Is director Zhang Yimou's blend of Chinese culture and Hollywood in his latest film a hit or miss?
By Li Fangfang | NO. 3 JANUARY 19, 2017

 

U.S. actor Matt Damon in The Great Wall (IC)

When acclaimed Chinese director Zhang Yimou, whose films have won international awards and whose directing of the spectacular opening ceremony of the 2008 Beijing Olympics fetched him a Peabody Award, released his latest venture on December 16, 2016, it was bound to create buzz.

The Great Wall, a Chinese-U.S. venture starring Matt Damon, Pedro Pascal, Willem Dafoe, Jing Tian and Andy Lau, is the most expensive film production in Chinese history, with an estimated budget of around $135 million. Billed as an "epic historical fiction action-adventure monster film," it grossed 1 billion yuan ($144.24 million) in two weeks. There were also good reports from Southeast Asia, Turkey and Iceland, where Zhang's first fully English-language film was released on December 29, 2016. It will debut in North American cinemas on February 17, 2017.

Enter the monsters

The plot is based on an ancient Chinese folktale surrounding the building of the Great Wall. Built as defense fortifications as early as the 7th century B.C., the wall was reinforced around 220 B.C. under Emperor Qinshihuang, and construction continued till the reign of the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644). The story starts with European mercenary William Garin, played by Damon, and his companions searching for gunpowder in China and coming across a people living in fear of a species of monster, called Tao Tie, who invades their land every 60 years.

Garin's arrival coincides with such an invasion by hordes of Tao Tie who attack the Great Wall. He drops his quest for fortune and joins the army of Chinese warriors to confront the seemingly unstoppable marauders.

Damon, a fan of Zhang, has called the director the "Steven Spielberg of China." His first reaction on seeing the imagery Zhang had planned for the film was to compare it to James Cameron's Avatar.

Besides Hollywood actors, the monster film has roped in two American production companies in addition to two Chinese. The kernel of the story came from Thomas Tull, CEO of Legendary Entertainment, one of the Hollywood production companies involved, while Industrial Light and Magic created the visual effects, and New Zealand-based Weta Workshop made the props and weapons.

"I hope it isn't limited to a regular Hollywood blockbuster, but is a blend of the Hollywood mode and Chinese elements. That's the source of my passion," Zhang told People's Daily.

He said he added a lot of Chinese details to the original story written by American writers. However, it was not practical to put in too many cultural elements, as the film would then have been hard for non-Chinese audiences to understand.

"To make Chinese culture and the Hollywood mode work well together in a film needs hard work," the 66-year-old director said.

However, some of the viewers don't seem to be buying that. A section of the Asian-American media is accusing The Great Wall of "whitewashing" history. Constance Wu, star of the ABC sitcom Fresh Off the Boat, tweeted that Hollywood needs to stop perpetuating the myth that "only a white man can save the world. It's not based on actual fact."

Zhang refuted the criticism, saying that his heroes were Chinese: "Actually, it is a story about foreigners trying to steal gunpowder from China to sell in Europe. The bravery, dedication and fighting spirit of Chinese soldiers changed [their] view, inspiring them to eventually join the fight against the monster."

In his view, the movie is "about the Great Wall, about the national spirit."

 

Director Zhang Yimou (right) and actor Andy Lau at the Hong Kong premiere of The Great Wall on December 20, 2016 (XINHUA) 

Genius or greenhorn? 

Chinese viewers have had some harsh things to say about the film, especially on social media. On the day it was released, a viewer with the user name "Desecrate Movie" wrote on the Weibo microblogging platform, "Zhang Yimou has died." In a long post, the critic also said "Master Zhang" was "like a third-rate greenhorn with the narrative."

Hollywood has been saturated with monster movies, from the original King Kong in 1933 to Godzilla, Jurassic Park and Zombieworld as recently as 2015. Did the world really need another monster film?

Zhang regards Tao Tie as an allegory, a metaphor for greed. He refers to a Chinese saying which says that greed is like a monster that loves feeding and eventually devours its own body.

Initially, his American partners regarded Tao Tie as a monster without any deeper meaning. "They thought the beast is just a beast," Zhang said. "But Tao Tie is a beast of great greed from ancient Chinese mythology. I suggested they keep the meaning of greed."

Finally, they accepted his suggestion and consequently, the theme of greed runs through the entire movie.

Unlike fictitious monsters, Zhang wanted to make Tao Tie look real and believable, like an animal that actually existed in history, "like a real massive carnivore." To meet his exacting demand, Weta spent a whole year designing the beast, submitting 1,000 drafts.

To make The Great Wall grounded in reality, Zhang wanted the fight against monsters on the Great Wall to be an epic combat between man and beast without the help of any superpower or even advanced weaponry. So the soldiers' weapons were designed according to those used during China's cold weapon period, such as bows and arrows and catapults throwing boulders. The uneven battle was intended to show the heroic spirit of China's ancient army and its readiness to sacrifice itself.

"There are too many super powers in movies nowadays; people can level half a city with one finger, so any challenge feels too easy. For this movie, I really want to... do something as realistic as possible," Zhang said to the American magazine Entertainment Weekly.

Zhang also indicated he made The Great Wall, which is a departure from his last few films, because it was an opportunity to show his range.

"They [critics] think I should stick to my previous genre. [They say] why not keep shooting To Live or The Story of Qiu Ju? You must have the capability [to shoot different kinds of films]. Because of [my experience], I can do projects like The Great Wall...The Great Wall is a standard product, a deep cooperation and also, a Chinese story."

Defending the style, he said, "First and foremost, this is an English-language film, and a Hollywood blockbuster. It was already made very clear in the script phase that this is a Hollywood monster movie and needs to be made in that style. I didn't want to change that approach, and there's no need to do that. What I really wanted is to bring Chinese color and cultural background to a worldwide audience through a film language they are familiar with," Zhang said.

However, with China's film industry developing rapidly, audiences are becoming more critical than in the past, when they might have been wowed by fancy visual effects.

Wen Xingang, a movie critic and an online drama director, found defects in Zhang's technique. "The Chinese and Western elements are not blended naturally in the movie. Zhang just mixed them mechanically," Wen told Beijing Review. "While colors and photography are two main features of his works, good narratives are just accidental."

However, Wen predicted that all adverse criticism would bounce off the director: "Audiences' reactions toward Zhang's movies are either positive or negative, just like their reactions to Hero. However, Zhang never cares. He just does what he likes."

Copyedited by Sudeshna Sarkar

Comments to lifangfang@bjreview.com

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