When the city of Beijing was selected to host the 2008 Summer Olympics, China turned to its most internationally renowned film director, Zhang Yimou, to handle the opening and closing ceremonies at The Beijing National Stadium, a gorgeous venue dubbed “The Bird’s Nest” for the ornate latticework around the structure. Though Zhang made his name on delicate period pieces like 1990’s Ju Dou and 1991’s Raise the Red Lantern, he had more recently summoned the resources necessary to make a pair of incomparably beautiful martial arts films in 2002’s Hero and 2004’s House of Flying Daggers. With the unlimited resources supplied by a government eager to assert China’s presence on the world stage, Zhang and his team pulled off an opening ceremony of unparalleled scope, at once inspiring and intimidating in its thundering grandeur.
With that in mind, consider the curious case of The Great Wall, Zhang’s first film in English, a massive international co-production that was shot entirely in China, but features a Hollywood star, Matt Damon, in the lead role, and key supporting roles for Willem Dafoe and Pedro Pascal. In many ways, it resembles the Italian films of the ’60s and ’70s, when Burt Lancaster got dubbed into The Leopard or tough guys like Lee Van Cleef or Rod Steiger turned up in Sergio Leone Westerns. But in the new world order, where access to Chinese yuan figures heavily into how American studio dollars are spent, The Great Wall represents a fascinating and significant partnership where the two cultures mingle and clash. A certain amount of awkwardness comes with the territory.
On top of working in English with a major American star, there are other firsts in The Great Wall for Zhang, most notably the commercial mashup of a 5,500-mile-wide historic landmark with fantastical green CGI monsters. (Available in 3D, of course.) Yet the pleasant surprise of The Great Wall is how much it falls in line with the nationalist spectacle of Hero and The Olympics, and the degree to which Chinese culture and values dominate the film’s American contributions. It makes sense that the film comes to America after already collecting $224 million worldwide, and that whatever pittance it might make on these shores will only add more black ink to the ledger. For once, the story isn’t American culture infiltrating overseas, but something close to the opposite.
Garbling his way through this $150 million megaproduction like a true spaghetti Western star, Matt Damon stars as William, part of a group of mercenaries seeking a mysterious and powerful “black powder” in China during the Song Dynasty. Along with his buddy Pero (Pascal), William survives a monster attack that decimates their crew, but leaves them with evidence of an otherworldly beast slain by William’s sword. Lost without a compass, William and Pero happen upon The Great Wall, where they’re captured by The Nameless Order, a secret military force charged with guarding the country from foreign invaders.