(Be duly informed that there are minor spoilers of The Great Wall ahead.)
Much was expected from #ZhangYimou's latest film, The Great Wall, which stars Hollywood star #MattDamon (The Martian) and Hong Kong A-lister #AndyLau (Infernal Affairs). Not only it is the Raise the Red Lantern helmer's first English-language film, it is also the biggest and most expensive film ever made in China, with a hefty budget of US$135 million.
Of course, every film by Zhang comes with high expectations as he is, after all, touted as "one of the most breathtaking visual stylists of our time". In a career spanning 30 years, the Chinese director had given us cinematic gems such as arthouse favorites Ju Dou (1990) and The Story of Qiu Ju (1992), to global mainstream hits such as Hero (2002) and House of the Flying Daggers (2004). Not forgetting his masterful direction of the spectacular opening/closing ceremonies of the Beijing 2008 Olympics Games.
For The Great Wall though, Zhang was primarily hired to deliver a mega China-US co-production that would become a global hit. Hence, the casting of Matt Damon.
Headliner, not Savior
Let's cut to the chase: Contrary to rumors, Damon doesn't play a "white savior" who is in China to lead/direct/complete the construction of the world's most iconic structure. Set in 15th century China, The Great Wall is an action fantasy adventure which revolves around The Nameless Order, an elite force of Chinese soldiers who has to defend the Middle Kingdom against mythical creatures that scale the Great Wall every 60 years. Damon and Games of Thrones star Pedro Pascal play foreign mercenaries who, while trying to attain lucrative "black powder" (read: gunpowder) in China, find themselves fighting alongside the sacrificial Order against the fantastical beasts on the Wall.
Our verdict of the film? The Lord of the Rings meets Predators, China-style. The idea of foreigners in 15th century China is not that far-fetched, but alien-like monsters that appear every half century or so is another story. That plus under-developed characters (both Chinese and Western) who you don't really care much for, no matter how good-looking they are or how noble and selfless they are portrayed.
It is far from being Zhang's best film and the only saving grace is that the visionary director's trademark grandeur visual style is intact, from sweeping panoramic flourishes to ballet-like battle scenes, to the artful use of bold colors. The film did come across as a film faithful to Chinese characteristics, but Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon it ain't (and which became a global hit without the need for Caucasian actors).
Critics' reviews have not been great - ranging from kind to scathing - but the film is doing well at the box office in Asia since it premiered last December. It remains to be seen if it will be embraced by the rest of the world. By our humble opinion, if you leave your brains at the door, The Great Wall can provide decent popcorn entertainment for two hours. Here's five things we like about the film:
1. Impressive replica of The Great Wall
No thanks to the millions of tourists that visit it every year, the actual Great Wall is badly in need of repairs for most parts of its 5,500-mile glory. So we did wonder why the Chinese authorities would allow Zhang to film an entire film with a cast of hundreds on it. It seem he didn't. Most of the movie was actually filmed on built sets in a massive facility within Wanda Studios in Qingdao, China. That was truly a surprise as the Wall really looked real and very detailed in the film. Of course there were "magical" moments that revealed that it was not what it seem but we're not going to spoil it here for you.
2. Spectacular Scenes
The plot is weak but at least the film is good to look at. Visually-stunning scenes that stood out include one where hundreds of lanterns are released into the night sky during a character's funeral; another in which giant bomb-ladled balloons fly across the Chinese capital (pictured above); and a battle scene where a troupe of spear-wielding female warriors bungee-jump a la Cirque-de-Soleil off the Great Wall in order to fight the man-eating monsters. You have to see it for yourself.
3. Actors who play identical characters in 'The Departed' and 'Infernal Affairs' in the same film
If you are a fan of the Oscar-winning crime drama, The Departed (2006), you will know that the film is inspired by the Hong Kong blockbuster, Infernal Affairs (2002). In the Hollywood film, Matt Damon plays the gangster mole who embedded himself into the police force, a role based on a character played by Andy Lau in the Hong Kong film. Call it a cheap thrill but being a fan of both the critically-acclaimed films, it was fascinating to see Damon and Lau acting side by side in The Great Wall! Check out the images of the two actors in their respective award-winning films below:
4. The "Might" of the Elite Forces
One reason why Zhang loves working in China is that when hundreds of extras are required, he can easily find hundreds of actors and non-actors to play palace guards or foot soldiers. In Zhang's big productions - such as The Great Wall and 2006's Curse of the Golden Flower - it is always grand to see large army troops played by real actors and not digitally enhanced to make it appear so. What's more, in this film, the soldiers are differentiated in colored armor - eg red for the archers, blue for the female warriors, and so forth. You also get an inkling of how Chinese armies of old used to fight with - spears, shields, arrows, fire balls, etc (though not the balletistic bungee-jumping with spears). Not much different from Medieval European battles actually, if you think about it.
5. Comic Relief from Western Stars
Considering its fantasy premise, if The Great Wall took itself less seriously, it might make for a better film. But as it is, the Chinese in the cast play their parts of brave and patriotic military personnel extremely straight - no laughing matter here as the world is watching, people! So it's left to Damon and Pascal to provide welcome comic relief whenever they appear on screen (Willem Dafoe is the other Hollywood star in the movie but his part could have been played by any other actor really.) Both actors handled their roles decently well, and you can honestly buy the fact that they're merely two foreigners who are in the wrong place at the wrong time in China.
The Great Wall will be released on 17 February 2017 in the US and UK.
Watch The Great Wall trailer here:
(Sources: variety.com, rottentomatoes.com, theguardian.com, thestraitstimes.com)