As if to mirror the grandeur of the monument itself, The Great Wall is simply the most expensive Chinese movie ever made. However, the collaboration between Universal Pictures and Legendary Entertainment, which was recently bought by the Chinese Dalian Wanda Group, isn't meant to be a history course in blockbuster disguise: It's a fantasy movie, complete with mystical creatures and ancient powers.
But when the trailer was recently released, the plot of the movie was kicked out of the spotlight by a controversy about Matt Damon's presence at the helm of the movie. This process of whitewashing is an issue almost as old as Hollywood itself: The casting of a white actor in a movie where the story isn't in any way related to Western culture. Recently, the adaptation of Ghost in the Shell and Marvel's Doctor Strange received the same kind of backlash.
Why The Casting Of Matt Damon Is An Issue
In the case of The Great Wall, it's quite simple: If the Wall is such a central monument in Chinese history, why can't we let the Chinese tell the story about it? Imagine a movie about the American Revolutionary War with a Chinese actor in the lead role, and you'll get the irk coming from the likes of Constance Wu, who regularly speaks out about the whitewashing of the Chinese movie industry.
And while some will say that Damon's name alone should help carry the movie to international success, and thus help non-American movies make their way to the top of the domestic box office, the problem with that approach is that it helps maintain the collective notion that only American movies or actors can be financed.
What About The Diversity Of The Rest Of The Cast?
On the other hand, fans of the movie argued that the rest of the cast is not only incredibly diverse, it also brings together some of China's biggest movie stars — plus the internationally acclaimed director Zhang Yimou.
We've got Pedro Pascal, born in Chile, who recently excelled in the TV series Narcos. One of the main ladies is played by Tian Jing, who's a Chinese action and fantasy movie specialist. There's a second American actor, Willem Dafoe, but there's also Andy Lau, a true acting legend born in Hong Kong. Eddie Peng is from Taiwan and grew up in Canada. Numan Acar is a Turkish actor! Add to them Chinese actors Lu Han, Kenny Lin and Hanyu Zhang, and you've got a fairly balanced cast.
Such a melange of origins seems to make sense for an American-Chinese collaboration. And if you look at the plot, none of the Western actors are playing Chinese characters — they portray travelers, visitors.
The Marketing Of The Movie Betrays It
So, should we celebrate The Great Wall as an international collaboration, bringing together the best talent from across the world? That might have been an option until the release of the poster, which features a close-up shot of Matt Damon's face only distinguishable from the Jason Bourne poster by the length of his hair. Ironically, his name almost seems to be the answer to the spooky tagline: "What were they trying to keep out?"
You can barely see the Wall, let alone the rest of the cast: No names or faces seem to signal that this movie is proud of its diversity, or rooted at all in the Chinese culture and movie industry. This could be a wall in the middle of Utah and you wouldn't be able to tell the difference. Is Matt Damon's crowd-attracting power so strong that he can't even be surrounded by other actors' faces? Watch the trailer again, and you'll see that he also happens to be the only one who talks.
While Zhang Yimou's cinematography alone would be worth watching the movie (if you haven't yet, you should check out The House of the Flying Daggers), it's such a terrible shame that the biggest Chinese movie of all time allows for its Chinese-ness to be obliterated in the name of marketing, especially marketing strategies that seem obsolete when you see that movies such as Pan and Gods of Egypt miserably failed at the box office, despite their big-name cast. Meanwhile, The House of the Flying Daggers made $93 million worldwide, from a budget of about $15 million. Remember, Zhang Yimou?