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Great Wall, The

Entry updated 21 February 2022. Tagged: Film.

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Chinese film (2016; vt Chang Cheng). Legendary East, Le Vision, Atlas Entertainment, China Film Group, Universal Pictures. Directed by Zhang Yimou, starring Matt Damon, Pedro Pascal, Willem Dafoe, Jing Tian, Andy Lau. Written by Carlo Bernard, Doug Miro, Tony Gilroy. 104 minutes. Colour.

In the eleventh century CE, William (Damon) and Tovar (Pascal) are the last survivors of a group of European mercenaries who have made the long journey to China in search of the secret of gunpowder (see Weapons). They arrive at the Great Wall, which is guarded by the Nameless Order, an elite battalion of uniquely specialized troops, tasked with holding the line against periodic attacks by taotie Monsters. The taotie are themselves revealed as Alien invaders, whose vessel crashed many centuries earlier. A brood of warrior-monsters is incubated every 60 years by the alien queen, sallying forth from the taotie's glowing green mountain lair.

Deep down in the storyline of The Great Wall are some noble science fictional concepts, particularly as regarding the likely Shaggy God Stories that may have arisen, a sub-genre demonstrably popular in China through the works of the likes of He Ma and Tianxia Bachang. It is implied, but never stated outright, that the image of the taotie is the origin of the "thunder-pattern" designs on ancient Chinese bronzes, and an astrologically-minded reader might deduce that China's 60-year calendar (twelve animals multiplied by five elements) derived from the ancestors' need to watch for the next attack (see History in SF). There are similar shadowy depths to be glimpsed in the names of the draftees of multiple unseen versions of the script, with Max Brooks (with whose World War Z this might readily be compared), Edward Zwick and Marshall Herskovitz all sharing a "story by" credit in recognition of a few remnants of earlier contributions.

However, the vast bulk of The Great Wall is born from substantially simpler issues, namely the meteoric rise in global influence of the Chinese Cinema sector in the early twenty-first century. The true stand-off between mutually-unintelligible races can even be discerned in the credits, which list over a hundred production translators, as Hollywood moguls attempt to broker a deal with Chinese exhibitors, in order to produce a film (or at least, a trailer) that will somehow appeal to the remarkably different audiences of the United States and the People's Republic. Director-for-hire Zhang Yimou plunders elements of his earlier Wuxia epic Hero (2002), launching colour-coded warriors into balletic skirmishes knowingly arranged for their visual appeal, and setting up grand tableaux – smoke across the sky, a squadron of lantern-balloons – unrepentantly in anticipation of their likely Sense of Wonder. The script, meanwhile, panders to several territories, shoehorning name-actors from Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Korea into bit-parts sufficient to get them on the poster, and telling nationalist audiences on both sides of the Pacific what they want to hear. As with Hero, the feckless, soulless point-of-view character (Damon) is browbeaten into accepting a higher, nobler purpose, in this case largely through the example of Commander Lin (Jing), a propagandistic heroine of the wall elite. But also as in Hero, he does so by kowtowing to a smugly brutalist military regime that offers no hope for the individual. If it did so, perhaps the Chinese would have been able to act on the taotie's somewhat gamified Achilles Heel some 900 years earlier, when they first noticed it, and not waited for a foreigner to arrive with a randomly acquired McGuffin.

The artistic heritage of The Great Wall was also loaded with political implications. Misreadings of the earliest trailer led to protests about "whitewashing" in the casting of a Caucasian actor in an Asian film. As with a similar storm over the live-action Ghost in the Shell (2017), the race of the lead role was diegetically defensible, pushing the argument into broader issues concerning the market-led assumptions of the film-makers, and consequently of the markets themselves (see Race in SF). More worryingly for the prospects of an increasingly China-focused international film industry, the Communist Party mouthpiece People's Daily issued a stern rebuke against reviewers of the work whose "malicious, irresponsible remarks could seriously damage the Chinese film environment." In other words, Chinese cinema now expected unquestioning self-sacrifice not only from its fictional guardians against alien invasion, but also from its audiences. [JonC]

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