The Great Wall: Prone To Be Politicized

The Great Wall of China – one of those few historical monuments around the world that completely captures our imagination. Why was it built? How was it built and by whom? The actual facts, as applied to most of history, are a little less exciting. For instance, one of the famous things we know about the Great Wall is that it can be seen from outer space.

A quick Google search makes it clear that this is simply not true. Also, the wall was not built thousands of years ago – the one that was built then has largely disappeared – but in the 15th century AD by the Ming Dynasty of China. The reason for this massive wall was to keep the Mongols out, a largely unsuccessful undertaking.

The Great Wall, the movie, is unconcerned by the facts surrounding the wall, but the legends. A long time ago, a comet lands in China and unleashes green monstrous animals, called Taoties, who are led by a queen. The Great Wall is then built, to keep the monsters out, but as the Taotie evolve and become smart, the wall proved not to be a deterrent.

White man to the rescue! William is a Westerner who has come to China looking for the fabled “black powder” (presumably, a gun powder), which could be used as a powerful weapon. But fate lands him in the hands of Chinese soldiers, who then bring him to the Great Wall.

William, and his companion, soon learn what the wall is expected to keep out. It is then up to William to aid his fellow humans in their battle against aliens or to do the selfish thing and run away with the secrets of the black powder. The lead role is played by the gifted Matt Damon, who has had a very unique Hollywood career. In the late 1990’s, he and his close friend Ben Affleck, wrote the warm and quick-witted Good Will Hunting as a way to get acting jobs. Ever since Damon has haunted the silver screen in a series of measured and tempered performances.

Most memorable are probably the Bourne movies. And given his character’s physical agility in this film, Damon has not strayed much from his most famous avatar. The only other known face in this film belongs to Willem Dafoe, who can play a decent man (Sergeant Elias, Jesus Christ) or a villain with equal intensity and sincerity. From time to time, he is forced to make petty supporting appearances in movies such as this and others. I guess, even great actors have to eat.

Who directed this movie?

It is none other than one of China’s most esteemed filmmakers, Zhang Yimou. Yimou is a leading figure of the so-called Fifth Generation of Chinese filmmakers who came to international renown after the end of the infamous Cultural Revolution (which ironically saw the destruction of part of the Great Wall surrounding Beijing). The fact that Yimou made this movie is surprising, not because of the subject matter but because of the style of the movie. One of Yimou’s greatest movies is Raise the Red Lantern – in many ways, a feminist movie steeped in non-feminist times. Yimou directed the movie with a fantastic sense of audio-visual composition – what he achieved was cinematic excitement, unperturbed by unnecessary dialogue or ennui.
Another exceptional, less serious film from Yimou is Hero, starring Jet Li. Again a movie not just with impressive martial arts choreography but with various bursts of exquisite imagery – it almost makes the audience forget all about the story. Such brilliance is almost entirely non-existent in The Great Wall. Some scenes are so below par, are done so haphazardly, I wonder if Yimou showed up for work. A great story is too much to expect in a movie that is so expensive, but the least the filmmakers could have given us are expressive (or maybe just passable) camera angels.

A movie such as this is prone to be politicized. At the center of the movie, in the center of medieval China is a white person. The second Damon shows up in the movie, it stops being about a group of Chinese fighting against a monster and a movie about a Westerner having an adventure in an exotic land.
Accusations of whitewashing are flooding in. The case of The Great Wall though is a little different from other films, for instance, like Ridley Scott’s Gods of Egypt. Damon, at the end of the day, does play a Western guy while Christian Bale played the Egyptian Moses in Gods of Egypt. The outcry surrounding this film is that, for such a movie soaked in Chinese culture and tradition, the protagonist should have been a Chinese actor.

But then again these types of arguments never take in the reality of the entertainment industry. This is a very expensive movie that needs to be distributed to international markets, not just China, to make a profit. A film like this could never be made unless a person like Damon is cast, and the movie is in English.

How many of us are willing to watch a foreign-language film (other than English)?
I thought so. The Great Wall would not have been screened here in Addis Abeba if it was not for the “whitewashing” that is pissing off a lot of people.

Published on Jan 17,2017 [ Vol 17 ,No 872]



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