Though Matt Damon stars, the Song Dynasty-set fantasy demonstrates China’s new might as a producer and distributor of globally minded films.
By Sophia Nguyen
The Great Wall reflects tectonic shifts in international moviemaking that have recently destabilized Hollywood’s dominance. (Photo: Legendary East)
Holding Matt Damon at swordpoint in the second trailer for The Great Wall, a Chinese general in full armor demands, “Why are you here?” She’s not the only one asking: When the first trailer came out last June, Damon’s leading role drew heated criticism on social media. Why was this top-knotted American dad swaggering on the ramparts of China’s most famous landmark as the hero of an Asian period fantasy?
Over a half a year before its American release, critics called the movie out for “whitewashing” the Song Dynasty-set fantasy story. “Yes, a thousand years ago, Jason Friggin’ Bourne saved the Chinese from dragons,” Phil Yu wrote in his blog Angry Asian Man. “We have to stop perpetuating the racist myth that only a white man can save the world,” actress Constance Wu tweeted.
Certainly, though the practice has evolved somewhat since “yellowface” make-up appeared in major movies (in the 1930s, Warner Oland played Charlie Chan; in 1961’s Breakfast at Tiffany’s,Mickey Rooney starred as Audrey Hepburn’s Japanese landlord), today film executives still cast white actors in Asian roles. Benedict Cumberbatch played Khan in 2013’s Star Trek Into Darkness, and Scarlett Johansson will portray Motoko Kusanagi in the upcoming Ghost in the Shell, to name a few recent examples.
But to dismiss The Great Wall as Hollywood-business-as-usual is to erase the role of Chinese talent and capital in the film’s production. Co-produced by the China Film Group and Le Vision Pictures, The Great Wall is the first production from Hong Kong-based Legendary East, a standalone media company affiliated with United States-based Legendary Pictures (owned by Chinese real estate and entertainment conglomerate Dalian Wanda since 2011). Before 2011, when the project was being developed by American owners, American director Ed Zwick was attached (The Last Samurai, Blood Diamond); the final product, in theaters today, was helmed by one of China’s most famous filmmakers, Zhang Yimou.
Though Hollywood has long exported its products to East Asian markets, The Great Wall reverses this dynamic: It’s a blockbuster built to go West. And it’s part of a growing trend of Chinese-American collaborations — from Lust Caution to Kung Fu Panda 3 and the upcoming Now You See Me 3 — designed toappeal to a global audience, and raise China’s profile as a film producer and distributor.
Though The Great Wall depicts a Chinese army forced to rely on the superior skills of a foreign mercenary, the film arrives at a time when Hollywood has come to rely on China.
“There’s no question that in the next two or three years [China’s] going to surpass the U.S. in terms of box office,” Henry McGee, a lecturer at Harvard Business School and former HBO president, says.
With movies including Now You See Me 2 and Furious 7 performing far better overseas than at home, some American titles are incorporating Chinese brands and politics into their screenplays: Robert Downey Jr., for instance, can be seen gulping Gu Li Duo (a popular Chinese milk drink) in Iron Man 3; in 2011, the Los Angeles Timesreported that studio MGM had digitally altered the invading army in Red Dawn to wear North Korean uniforms instead of Chinese ones, “lest the leadership in Beijing be offended.” In The Martian, a probe called the Taiyang Shen boosts a NASA rocket to save an astronaut played by — who else? — Matt Damon.
Meanwhile, so-called “local,” Chinese-made films are taking an increasing share of the Chinese box office. In 2013, Deadlinereported that ticket sales for local films in the year’s first half had increased 144 percent from the previous year, while imported films had a 21 percent slump. In 2015 and 2016, the country’s highest earners were Chinese productions The Mermaid and Monster Hunt.
That’s “absolutely unprecedented,” according to Michael Curtin, a professor of film and East Asian studies at the University of California–Santa Barbara. Though the playing field’s strictly controlled — Beijing currently imposes an import quota allowing only 34foreign films to be distributed each year — a real rivalry between Hollywood and Chinese production would have been unthinkable 20 years ago.
“The Hollywood industry has pretty much dominated international film distribution, and, to some extent exhibition, in the wealthy countries for almost 100 years,” Curtin says. “What we’re seeing is the emergence of some very powerful players in the Chinese market, and that’s changing things very dramatically.”
“What we’re seeing is the emergence of some very powerful players in the Chinese market, and that’s changing things very dramatically.”
Those players are interested in co-productions like The Great Wall in part because of a larger political agenda, experts say. Beginning in 2012, president Xi Jinping articulated his vision of the “Chinese dream,” which included extending the country’s power through cultural means and promoting Chinese values abroad through mass media. “The stories of China should be well told, voices of China well spread, and characteristics of China well explained,” he told members of the Politburo (which oversees the ruling Communist Party), in a 2014 speech.
In her book Hollywood Made in China, University of Virginia media professor Aynne Kokas notes that, in policy circles, China’s perceived lack of cultural sway compared to its economic might is called a “cultural trade deficit,” which they are keen to close. “If you attend film forums in Shanghai or read policy documents, you can see there is a huge amount of emphasis on creating local, domestic Chinese blockbusters,” she says. A project like The Great Wall is an opportunity to make a Chinese story into a global product — even if the story’s credited to American screenwriters Max Brooks, Ed Zwick, and Marshall Herskovitz.
But there may also be a business logic at play when Chinese studios partner with American companies. “Optimistically,” Wang Jianlin, the head of Wanda, toldThe Hollywood Reporter last November, “it will be at least 10 years before we can make films in English that are global.”
While China works toward developing those English properties, Sino-U.S. co-productions are making use of the country’s lavish new production facilities — like Wanda’s Qingdao Movie Metropolis, where The Great Wall was filmed, which boasts a green screen-equipped, 56,000-square-foot outdoor stage, a permanent model of a New York City street, and yacht parking. (As a further incentive, Wanda and Qingdao’s municipal government unveiled a generous 40 percent production rebate for “qualifying” international productions that use the studio in October.)
Stateside, Chinese companies are collaborating with and purchasing U.S. production and distribution companies. In the past two years, China Media Capital and Alibaba Pictures have formed partnerships with Warner Brothers and the Amblin Entertainment production company. Wanda, now the world’s largest theater operator, bought U.S.-based AMC Theatres in 2012, and, in 2016, also purchased the Legendary and Dick Clark production companies. That same year, after investing an unspecified sum in Sony, it announced a new co-production venture with the American company.
Given Chinese companies’ overseas investment and cinema ownership, “The next scale up is to compete head-on with Hollywood,” Curtin says. “And I think it’s fairly clear that in order to compete head-on with Hollywood, that means they have to own one of the big franchises … or have Matt Damon-level marquee talent.”
Even when an American star’s name is splashed across the top of a movie poster, the U.S. company behind a co-production may not ultimately be the one in charge. Answers to whether a given co-production ought to be considered more “Chinese” or “American” are ultimately subjective — in China, the issue has sparked spirited debate in the press and in online fan forums. But the Chinese government also has formal rules about which films are considered official co-productions, and thus get more favorable distribution terms.
As Kokas explains in Hollywood Made in China, the State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television approves of contractual agreements made between foreign and Chinese parties, is present throughout production, and vets a cut of a co-produced film before giving it a legal permit for distribution. But cross-national collaborations also flourish outside of this official process: Movies like 2007’s The Secret of the Magic Gourd (commissioned by Disney, but made entirely by Chinese talent) and 2013’s My Lucky Star, a Chinese-language rom-com directed by American, Anglophone director Dennie Gordon, were not official, and yet made more than $1 million and nearly $22 million at the Chinese box office, respectively.
“Co-production is the new trend … it’s just starting, and it might create a space for a new transnational hybrid culture.”
Such partnerships may have deep effects on the content of the films themselves, according to University of California–Riverside professor Wendy Su.“Co-production is the new trend,” she says. “It’s just starting, and it might create a space for a new transnational hybrid culture.”
If projects like Godzilla: King of Monsters and Pacific Rim: Maelstrom are any indication, that hybrid culture may prompt more global science-fiction and fantasy juggernauts to crash into theaters, their scenarios unencumbered by historical reality or the stickier bits of contemporary politics. Several recent co-productions aimed at global audiences also have plots hinging on cross-cultural connections, as if allegorizing the collaboration that produced them: Duncan Jones’ Warcraft depicts orcs and humans making unlikely friendships; Pacific Rim teams up robot-suited heroes from the U.S., China, Russia, and Australia who experience what the screenplay called “drift” — a kind of temperamental, telepathic compatibility. Even Independence Day: Resurgence is far more outward-looking than the 1996 original: Its American military characters belong to a coordinated United Nations effort.
Critics say the massive growth of this lucrative brand of border-crossing entertainment may diminish the availability of domestic stories both in China and in the U.S. “With this industrial convergence, both Hollywood and China are trying to make these globally viable blockbusters, which then precludes more local narratives,” Kokas says.
Curtin agrees: “The commercial end is, at the highest levels, very, very homogenizing, very corporate, with very grand global aspirations.” But a sense of overwhelming sameness always invites creative response, he points out: Filmmakers and producers react by investing in stories that buck the trend. In China, for example, several so-called “regional films” have had unexpected success, like the Tiny Times franchise, about Shanghai’s youth culture, or the crime genre Mr. Six, which was popular in Northern China, thanks in part to its use of Beijing dialect.
“So, rather than homogeneity, we’re seeing a very dynamic interaction between global and local forces, commercial forces, political forces, and cultural forces,” Curtin says. “It’s a much more active environment. It’s very vibrant. It is entertainment that has cultures rubbing up against each other.”
In retrospect, it seems obvious that Zhang Yimou would be The Great Wall’s architect:Internationally minded from the start, he’s considered one of China’s leading directors. Moreover, his work has been a bellwether for the country’s film industry as it has opened up to global capital and cultural influences.
At the beginning of his career, Zhang provoked film regulators: Though his early movies, mostly literary adaptations about the difficult lives of peasant women, were internationally celebrated — they collected accolades at film festivals in Berlin, Cannes, and Venice, and landed China its first Oscar nomination — Zhang received initial funding for films like Ju Dou and Raise the Red Lantern from international sources. At home, Ju Dou and his 1994 film To Live were banned by the government — a result of the film industry being strictly controlled by the state at the time, Curtin explains.
In retrospect, it seems obvious that Zhang Yimou would be The Great Wall’s architect.
“Films used to be about the relationship between the Party and the people,” Curtin says.“They were called development films: they were intended to uplift and instruct.”
Then Zhang made Hero,about China’s founding as a unified, imperial nation. Hero borrowed from the Hollywood playbook of financing and merchandising — the film was released alongside tie-in products like a television documentary and a novelization; and Zhang’s film also featured opulent visual effects, costumes, and globally recognized stars like Jet Li and Maggie Cheung. When he made Hero, Zhang also enjoyed considerable government support: The People’s Liberation Army served as extras, and the Ministry of Culture gave it “protection status,” meaning it warned the public not to purchase or disseminate pirated copies.
By the time he directed the 2008 Beijing Olympics ceremonies, the New York Times featured him in a story about how Zhang’s relationship with the Chinese government had changed. His role in the ceremony “underscore[s] one reality of a rising China: many leading artists now work with, or at least not against, the ruling Communist Party,” reporter David Barboza wrote.
Much like The Great Wall, Zhang’s 2011 film The Flowers of War was made to sell well to both domestic and American moviegoers — its subject was the Nanjing Massacre, and its star was Christian Bale. The Flowers of War was 2011’s top-grossing film in China, though it was not the success that Zhang’s previous Asian-cast blockbusters Hero and Curse of the Golden Flower were in the U.S.: It was passed over by the Academy Awards and panned by American critics, severalofwhom pointed out what they called Bale’s “problematic” presence.
So far, it seems that The Great Wall will also fall short of its makers’ world-conquering ambitions. The film is underperforming relative to its marketing budget at the Chinese box office, and on Wednesday Varietyreported that box-office projections for the film in the U.S. were lower than The Lego Batman Movie and 50 Shades Darker. Critics, meanwhile, report that Chinese elements are overwhelmed by stock Hollywood narratives and visuals. Of the movie’s monsters, Variety critic Maggie Lee writes, “Despite much being made of the Taotie … their form and movement are not so distinct from Orcs or mini-Godzillas.”
For better or worse, it’s these border-transcending touches that put Zhang at the forefront of the film industry’s new global reality, however. “I always feel that there are two schools of criticism out there when it comes to my films,” Zhang once told an interviewer. “They say that I’m trying to kiss either foreigners’ asses or the Chinese government’s ass. I always jokingly respond that I’m actually kissing my own ass!”
Zhang’s position ideally situates him to appreciate the irony of The Great Wall: What better symbol of the alliance between China and Hollywood as they grow more creatively and financially enmeshed? You can see that wall from space, but showbiz doesn’t recognize its borders.