Op-Ed: The Great Wall of Hollywood

It’s been a bit of time since the American release of the joint Chinese-American 2016 film venture The Great Wall. The film was something I followed distantly even in the early stages of production out of a hazy loyalty to Luhan. But I was dissuaded from spending the money on a theater ticket due to reasons I’ll soon explain, and didn’t actually get around to watching it until a few months back. With the lingering images of bad CGI monsters floating around in my mind I have to say: I’m glad I didn’t buy the ticket. But that conclusion made me think a little bit about what exactly The Great Wall accomplished, or failed to, and how that may affect China’s future advancement in the Hollywood movie industry.

This article is likely going to come across as some mixture of movie review, rant, and look-back on the last six months since the American release of The Great Wall. In fact, I very nearly made this a movie review, but I realized this topic is somewhat past its prime and it made more sense to look at the film through a lens of cause and effect, rather than an analysis of a plot that is so fundamentally cut-and-dry fantasy action flick there’s little to no analysis to be done. What you see is what you get, basically.

And what you get is not of a particularly high quality, especially not for a film with a 150 million dollar budget. In an altogether unsurprising turn of events, The Great Wall found box office success in China, grossing 170.9 million dollars in sales. In the United States of America and Canada, box office sales only reached 45.2 million dollars (Wikipedia). That’s a pretty staggering gap, and while there’s also hugely different population sizes between these North American countries and China to consider, I think there’s a bigger issue behind it.

As I am someone who always answers “Bad news” to the question “Good news first or bad news first?” I will begin by talking about the problems associated with the The Great Wall. It’s always nicer to end on a positive note too. So without further rambling, I’ll get to the meat of it.

Oh, and I might warn you: major spoilers will be present. In all fairness, nothing about this film was jaw-dropping surprising so if you haven’t seen it and plan to, I’ll leave it up to you to continue reading.

What the Film Did Wrong

The Target Audience, or Lack Thereof

With the film and all its quirks fresh in my mind, the most glaringly obvious aspect of it from the perspective of someone who regularly consumes both American and Chinese media is the film’s Chinese director. And this is because the film looks so very much like a Chinese movie with some Western actors thrown into the mix. And let me be clear: I am not saying a Chinese director is a bad thing. Not at all. But I’m just not quite sure a Chinese director understands the do’s and don’ts of a blockbuster Hollywood film, with an audience to match. And the final product consequently looks something a little too close to the more fantasy-esque Chinese media projects with a lot smaller budget. The CGI borders on questionable, and outright ridiculous at some parts. The stunts cling to the same over-the-top Matrix style backflips and acrobatics that seem to characterize so many Chinese films and dramas. Sure it’s fun, but it’s also incredibly campy and not something that lends a whole lot of credibility to a film whose premise is the already questionable “pseudo-dinosaurs besiege the Great Wall of China.”

Though I will say there was one very Hollywood aspect to this film: the final boss battle a la the Avengers where the entire army of monsters will miraculously and conveniently keel over if their leader is killed. It’s lazy writing, and not to mention supremely clichéd, but was perfectly in line with the films still being released in the U.S. nowadays so… that was accurate at least. Unfortunately, I happen to really resent final boss battles of this nature and thus can find little redeemability with this aspect of the film otherwise.

The thing is, I don’t really think there is an approach to this type of story that would work in America. Commercially, I mean. But the misunderstanding of a target audience is something I find a little hard to begrudge the director of because he clearly was trying to at least acknowledge both audiences. This is a bit of a tricky dilemma because I think, at this point in time, it is difficult to find a balance between what a Chinese audience looks for and appreciates in a film and what an American audience does, or perhaps a Canadian one. Its box office success in China indicates something about it hit the right note with a Chinese audience. But overall, The Great Wall came across as a visually and conceptually confusing film that didn’t seem to quite understand which generalized audience it was trying to appeal to.

The Trailer

Movie trailers are fairly significant parts of advertisement – of getting an audience to want to go see a movie at all. In fact, I would go as far to say they are the most significant parts of advertisement, more than any huge billboard ad or social media campaign could ever be. And if the movie isn’t part of some sort of recognizable franchise, the trailer is even more important.  I distinctly remember sitting in a movie theater with my sister, waiting for some movie I can’t remember now to play, when the trailer for The Great Wall appeared on the big screen. As it played out and I realized what exactly I was watching, I thought “Oh that’s Luhan’s movie with Matt Damon.” Meanwhile my sister, someone completely disconnected from any and all Chinese entertainment, was stifling her laughter in the seat next to me. And herein lies the problem with the trailer.

There’s a number of different trailers released for The Great Wall but they all do the same things wrong, so I’m going to simply use the one above as a general example. I think the first thing to note about it is the tried and true snippets of dialogue that seem to crop up in every fantasy epic. It automatically brings a cheesiness to the project that is hard to shake as the audience is quickly introduced to the villains of the movies: ancient dinosaur-like creatures that are swarming the Great Wall. That’s a lot to digest on a first look. There’s some really nice establishing shots of the Chinese landscape and then Matt Damon makes an appearance that gives the film some more footing with a Western audience, and a new problem.

In my opinion, the trailer does come across as being somewhat “White man comes in and saves the day. Huzzah.” The actual film is not nearly so one-sided and the Chinese soldiers are actively fighting and developing their own strategies along the way. Matt Damon helps them along a little more than is truly reasonable, but it’s not quite into Avatar territory. More like Fern Gully. If Zak was named William and on quest for gunpowder from China instead of trees from the Australian rainforest.

However, the trailer doesn’t really go to much lengths to show that the Chinese troops were fairly badass in the actual film. Just Matt Damon. We see Matt Damon jumping from the wall heroically, and miraculously shooting a bowl onto a wall, and throwing his shield like a frisbee. The ratio of Chinese characters doing cool things to Chinese characters getting chomped on by monsters in the trailer is rather uneven by comparison. And maybe the director thought that was the right approach to take with an American audience. But I think the people who are most apt to be critical of things like this will have already made up their minds about the film by the trailers’ close. And no matter how small a faction those people are, the number of potential moviegoers is already diminishing.

The Characters

Jing Tian, Matt Damon, and Andy Lau

Moving on to more specific aspects of the film that I took issue with is the way The Great Wall fails to flesh out any of its characters further than what you see in the events of the movie’s two hour runtime. Their backstory is summarized in jarringly short exposition where it’s vague enough that I came away with the idea the Matt Damon’s character was apparently a “bad guy” before all this and his friend is either Spanish or Portuguese.

William DaFoe’s character was obviously included simply so the main Chinese characters had a justifiable reason to be fluent in English and thus be able to communicate with Matt Damon and Pedro Pascal. Other than that, I forgot he was even part of the movie for most of its runtime. He wasn’t even conniving enough for me to even feel that “Got ‘im!” moment when he met his fatal end. So besides being as dimensionally flat as a piece of paper, he was forgettable to the point where it wasn’t even fun to hate him. Boo.

Honestly, I wish this movie’s characters were genuinely dislikeable. Then they at least wouldn’t have been so forgettable. The Chinese emperor, played by TF Boys’ Wang Junkai, was probably the closest thing the film got to presenting a character that was annoying for all the right reasons. It’s too bad his cumulative screen time was less than five minutes and his appearance felt more like a cameo because the almost side-plot involving the emperor appeared and disappeared faster than you could say: “Why?” On the plus side, Junkai was almost charmingly annoying in the role and the presence of the emperor at least broadened the landscape of the film beyond one tiny section of the Great Wall.

Luhan’s character of Peng Yong was predictable, though probably one of the more well-developed characters in the film. And that speaks volumes to the amount of time taken to illustrate any character growth for the span of the plot. His whole “coward finds courage in his final moments to save his friends” isn’t an unfamiliar trope in the landscape of an action movie. But at least Peng Yong went somewhere, as a person. I did feel a bit sad when he died, though I’m not quite sure if it was because Luhan was playing him or I actually became emotionally attached to the character somewhere between scenes of him scrubbing pots in the basement of the Great Wall.

As for our female lead Lin Mae played by Jing Tian, I will say that I liked her. I’m not sure how historically plausible her character may have been, but this is obviously a fantasy movie so I’ll let it slide. I do think the circumstances of her rising to power as the movie progressed were incredibly unlikely and her character description seemed to start and end with “female badass.” But it was entertaining watching her be a proactive leader and fighter and her dynamic with Matt Damon was fun to see as it stayed safely out of “enemies to lovers” territory. It was much more satisfying to see an “enemies to allies” relationship blossom between the two, which is something I grudgingly admit this film did right.

Action Flick for the Average Consumer + Subtitles = Shaky Situation

This is probably the most minor of the issues that likely dissuaded many American or Canadian consumers from either watching or thoroughly enjoying the film but it’s still relevant so I’ll mention it anyways: subtitles. This movie was neither advertised nor presented as anything but a fantasy-action flick. And this may be a generalization, but movies that find most of their meat in action sequences don’t tend to bring in audiences patient enough to sit through subtitled dialogue. Or at least audiences that came to read dialogue. The Great Wall is undoubtedly a popcorn movie, and while I obviously find no issue with the use or need for subtitles, I can’t say every other American consumer thinks the same. I was actually rather surprised how much of the film was spoken in Chinese, though I have to say this was one of my favorite things about it. There’s a lot of Hollywood period pieces or films shot in foreign countries that tactfully ignore the language barriers that should theoretically exist but The Great Wall was at least consistent in that regards. Unfortunately, this may have made for a movie more “complex” (not really) than some viewers were prepared for. Perhaps only the laziest of lazy movie-goers, but again, diminishing demographic.

That being said, Hollywood and American media can be very receptive of foreign language films, if done right. Take the South Korean film The Handmaiden as a recent example. But in order to captivate a foreign audience or get those film critics clapping, the film has to be conceptually, technically, or visually distinctive enough to earn praise. Using parts of the culture or history of the film’s country of origin is something I think can elevate a foreign film in a way no Hollywood project can ever authentically do. And The Great Wall might just be a little too Hollywood to get there, Chinese filming locations aside. Go figure.

Talk Awkward to Me

My last diatribe on The Great Wall relates to the dialogue that occurred between the characters in the film. The dialogue, when it did happen in English, was some of the most stilted I can ever recall hearing in a movie. Every single one-liner fell flat, conversation occurred in a manner that was so unrealistic and staged it removed me entirely from any world-building, and some of the dialogue was outright pointless. I’m not sure whether to chalk this up to translation issues or cultural differences that happened between here in there in the screen writing process. All I know is that things were always better onscreen when people weren’t communicating with each other, at least in English. And this isn’t to criticize the Chinese actors’ and actresses’ delivery of English lines, not at all. I can’t speak for any of their fluency in real life but they spoke English very competently in the film, something I commend them for. It’s just that the actual words people were scripted to say were paced and written in such an awkward, over-the-top way. There weren’t any lines that didn’t make sense, but there were moments that could have been infinitely better with stronger, more distinctive dialogue. There is so much a screenwriter can do with a bilingual script, and some of that incredibly unique potential was just wasted in this movie.

What the Film Did Right

It Happened

No, this isn’t me trying to give a “Good Effort” sticker or “Participation” ribbon to the film. I’m genuinely impressed a film of this scale that had to juggle a diverse combination of English and Chinese-speaking cast and crew actually happened. After hearing the director’s remark that the biggest issue behind the filming process was the numerous translators needed on set for things to run smoothly, I have to give The Great Wall props. Over one hundred translators were utilized on set while filming was occurring and the logistical nightmare this suggests is a little mind-blowing to think about. This was a very large, very costly project and the sheer amount of communication involved with two different parties speaking two different languages must have been a monumental obstacle to overcome. The filmmaking process is likely chaotic enough without a language barrier thrown into the mix. So in the end it is a bit remarkable to me that a project like this would ever see itself to completion, even if the final product was lackluster from a forgiving light and simply not very good from an honest perspective.

The Costumes and Set Design

I could talk about some of the more technical things the film did well, or least to a degree of competency, like the score. But I can’t actually remember much about it so it couldn’t have been particularly bad or good. The costumes, on the other hand, were very good. I would go as far to call them absolutely beautiful. This wasn’t something that came as too much of a surprise given that Chinese dramas and movies generally have some of the most gorgeous costumes a designer could dream up for the time period. And this aspect definitely carried over to the Chinese involvement in The Great Wall. So yes, costume design gets an A+ from me.

The set, when it wasn’t CGI, was also done extremely well. The entirety of the The Great Wall was filmed on site in China and that’s something I personally love about it. Plenty of Hollywood movies will shoot, say, a desert scene meant to occur an ocean away in the backdoor of California to save on costs. So the fact that filming for this trans-continental venture actually happened in the country the story was meant to be taking place in was a definite plus. There’s a certain authenticity to that you can’t shake, and while it most definitely wasn’t saving anyone any money, I think it was one of the better decisions the producers made in the end.

It was Mildly Entertaining

Probably not for all the reasons it should have been, but I wasn’t dozing off throughout the length of the film. There’s a special kind of absurdity to a project like this that made me want to keep watching, even though the plot was tragically predictable and lacked all of the seriousness its over-dramatic presentation was obviously trying to imbue. But a film’s main purpose was to entertain, and entertained I was… at least for most of The Great Wall‘s runtime.

As I mentioned before, I was worried for a moment that we were about to see a highly contrived love line between Matt Damon and Jing Tian’s characters near the end but the director and writers did well in laying that to rest. I thought the whole “Alright we saved China together but I’m not in love with you, have my mutual respect” dynamic the two had as they parted ways at the end was rather nice actually. So in the myriad of clichés the film used on the way to get there, at least we got to see an ending that strayed from a typical obligatory love story.

All in all, I can’t quite decide if this film is a step backwards or forwards for Chinese film advancement in Hollywood. It’s not that the film didn’t make money, because it certainly did, just not with one of the audiences the director was targeting. Something like this may dissuade big name Hollywood actors from pursuing collaborative projects like this, but then again money talks and the Chinese film industry has money abound. Recently Chinese actors and actresses have been getting more offers in Western media projects as well, which is a new direction for film and I ultimately don’t see a movie like The Great Wall really affecting this. One thing is certain: the Chinese film industry doesn’t need the support of Hollywood to flourish but only time will tell if Chinese celebrities can flourish in Hollywood.

If there's a Baekhyun, there's a way.

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