It’s All About Me: The Great Wall and White Savior Complex
Despite its cringeful pre-release marketing campaign I went into seeing The Great Wall with a semi-open mind. Zhang Yimou has directed some good films during his career and I was curious to see what he could do with US$150 million dollars. But right off the bat it was clear that despite being co-produced by one of the biggest production companies in China, Wanda Dalien (along with US-based Legendary Pictures), set in ancient China, and featuring a boatload of Chinese movie stars, this was going to be all about the white dude. Though I shouldn’t be surprised, I am a bit fatigued by the continuation of the white savior trope, wherein white guys rescue the benighted yellow people once again.
The film starts with a trio of European mercenaries fleeing across the Gobi desert, including Matt Damon as a character named William who speaks with a slight Irish accent, another guy who is Spanish, played by Chilean American actor Pedro Pascal, and a third guy who dies pretty quickly. Right away we know it’s going to focus on the surviving European dudes because Hollywood, and sure enough the story is told almost completely from their point of view.
The movie is seductive because it is so slick and beautifully packaged and is palatable and easy to watch. It’s seemingly respectful of Chinese culture—there are no evil Asiatic villains and several of the Chinese characters are noble and heroic, if incredibly clichéd. The film presents Chinese culture as refined and aesthetic, which is clearly meant to appeal to PRC audiences. But the narrative exists only to center the white heterosexual male perspective, so it’s no surprise that the screenplay is of course written by a white dude. Although it may seem like there are a whole lot of Chinese people in the movie they in fact are mostly window dressing who exist mainly as props for the white protags. The film actually posits that there are no archers in the entire elite Chinese regiment that’s been training for sixty years who are as good as the white dude. There’s also the highly questionable plot point that China didn’t have any magnets in their possession until white people brought them. This is especially insulting considering that the Chinese were the first to document the use of magnets and magnetism around 1088 AD. I mean, wtf?
The premise that a woman could be a general in ancient China is also a male fantasy of inclusion and equality that conveniently ignores the historic patriarchy and paternalism inside and outside of China that would have made this impossible. Mulan is a believable legend because it acknowledges that a woman could only be accepted in battle if she dressed like a man.The Great Wall presents females as accepted in the military hierarchy, even to the point of one of them becoming the supreme leader of the troops. While I’m all for strong female characters, the erasure of the historical oppression of women denies the suffering women have experienced in the patriarchy. Ultimately, General Lin, the female commander in The Great Wall, is a guilt sop that pretends a history of fairness and equality that didn’t exist. I suppose I should be grateful that the chaste and muted attraction between William and Lin is unconsummated or I would have run screaming from the theater.
Everything in the film is an excuse to get Matt Damon more screen time and it’s especially frustrating to see some of the biggest stars in China in what amounts to extended cameos. If you blink you would miss Lin Genxing, Lu Han, Eddie Peng, Zhang Hanyu, and more. In fact, seeing how ferocious Eddie Peng is in his three minutes onscreen made yearn for him, not Matt Damon, to be the protagonist of the film. Andy Lau and Jing Tian are the only Chinese actors with more than a handful of lines in the film and only the hot Asian babe in the shiny breastplate gets to have any notable character development.
Even the scary monsters that provide the main threat in the narrative are only partially baked, looking like a cross between orcs, dinosaurs, and the nasty creature from Alien. All in all, the movie is a confused mess of that fails to resolve in any satisfying way.The Great Wall is another fail from Hollywood (with an assist from Wanda Dalien, which has been trying to break into the US market for a while). Thank god CAAMfest is coming up next month to give us some movies about real Asian/Americans from our perspective, instead of the usual white-dude-centric nonsense perpetuated by this film.
UPDATE: Looks like THE GREAT WALL tanked at the box office in the US, and may also be taking down the entire US-China coproduction industry with it. Can’t say that I’m sorry. In fact I’m very not sorry at all.