Breaching “The Great Wall” – What the Matt Damon Starrer Means for China and Hollywood

by Ting Ting Xu February 15, 2017
A scene from The Great Wall

legendary east

Set to be the largest US-China co-production ever, The Great Wall will open this Friday, February 17 in the US. Directed by the renowned Fifth Generation director Zhang Yimou, the fantasy blockbuster is set against the breathtaking backdrop of China’s iconic landmark and follows two western explorers’ journey to the frontier of a heroic battle between Chinese warriors and ruthless yet intelligent creatures called Tao Tie.

Written by Tony Gilroy, Carlo Bernard and Doug Miro, the film opens straight away with an epically visual horse chase and from that point on it never lets up.  William (Matt Damon) and Tovar (Pedro Pascal) are searching for the legendary black powder the Chinese have invented but get taken prisoner by a Chinese army called the Nameless Order led by General Shao (Zhang Hanyu), Strategist Wang (Andy Lau) and Commander Lin (Jing Tian). Soon the two foreigners find out that the Nameless Order is commissioned by the emperor of the Song Dynasty to protect the Great Wall from the Tao Tie monsters. William and Tovar's combat skills earn the respect of General Shao and Commander Lin, and they are enlisted to join the next battle. William wants to stay to help the Nameless Order but Tovar insists that they should leave with the black powder which they can sell for profit; meanwhile, an imprisoned European mercenary named Sir Ballard (William Dafoe) is scheming to escape the Great Wall with Tovar.

Like Zhang Yimou’s previous films, The Great Wall is visually stunning.  The film’s luscious color palette hearkens back to Zhang’s most beautiful work such as Red Sorghum, Hero and Curse of the Golden Flower.  Further reminiscent of Zhang’s previous work, The Great Wall features a strong female heroine, that of Commander Lin. The films militaristic masculinity is offset by Lin’s emergence into the spotlight offering a very distinctive feminine portrayal.  

The film was released in China on December 16th, 2016 and brought in $67 million on its opening weekend, making it the country's fourth-biggest debut of 2016. The Great Wall has already grossed over $170 million in China and $224 million worldwide.

However, this number is lower than expected. In China, the mass media closely followed the production since Zhang Yimou announced to direct this film. The casting choices were in the center of media attention and eventually led to a storm of criticism on casting non-Chinese actor Matt Damon as the hero. To the Chinese audience, the biggest stars of the film might not be Matt Damon or Pedro Pascal but a slew of famous Chinese stars including Andy Lau, Eddie Peng, Han Lu and Kai Zheng. When the film was screened for Chinese film critics and press, they were shocked by “how limited screen time the Chinese cast have in the film”. Executives at Legendary East and Le Vision Pictures explained that the early negative criticism might have hurt the film’s box office in China. 

Golden Globe nominated director Zhang Yimou (who is also a Cannes, Berlin and Venice winner) said he wanted to “tell a story about China to a broad audience in the world” through this co-production and the film is certainly a fascinating hybrid of big-budget action fantasy and “art” film. The greatest interested generated by The Great Wall may be what it portends for the future of Western-Chinese co-productions in light of the emergence of the Chinese market as potentially the world’s largest. The film is also the first major production to have been shot at the Oriental Movie Metropolis in Qingdao, the massive production stages funded by Wang Jianlin, head of the  Dalian Wanda Group  that has plans for the world's largest (10000 sqm) studio pavilion including a permanent underwater stage.

After working there for 6 months, Matt Damon told the HFPA “I think for actors here in Hollywood whether they realize it or not, they are going to be spending a lot of time there, the way they have spent a lot of time in London over the last few years or Atlanta, or some of the other hubs in the world and it’s definitely going to be a huge kind of hub going forward.” The Great Wall may indeed turn out to be a sign of things to come.  

Watch our exclusive interview with Matt Damon about making The Great Wall.