The Great Wall of China – over 21,000 km of brick, stone and wood, is an undisputed impressive piece of work. It’s forbidding, inspiring, and a titan of a feat, being built upon the tragic backs of many forced into its construction. The passing of two thousand and three hundred years has taken away some of its majesty – a third lost to the environment and wear – but the world marvel still has not lost all of its shine.
The same can be said of Zhang Yimou and his latest movie of the same name. The Great Wall is Zhang’s newest offering – a period fantasy epic shot in China, with the gloss and budget of a Hollywood spectacle. To seal the crossover, he’s secured Matt Damon and Pedro Pascal as his foreign mercenaries characters, who stumble onto an alternative retelling of why the iconic structure exists.
A wonder unto himself, Yimou’s international regard as a legendary director has been overtaken by his more flamboyant skill as a visual stylist in recent times. His most familiar works, Hero, House of Flying Daggers and Curse of the Golden Flower clearly denoted this, with colour playing a big part in both his film palette and storytelling. In The Great Wall, the same coding and spectrum has been applied, but where once his rich colours decorated a sensuous drama, in this film, it comes across contrived and unsettlingly like something out of a video game.
Matt Damon is William Garin, a gifted soldier and pilferer of treasures, lining his pockets for his survival. He is joined by his Spanish friend Pero Tovar (Pedro Pascal). They stumble onto one of the outposts of the wall, with Captains of the Deer, Eagle and Tiger clan (Xuan Huang, Kenny Lin and Eddie Peng) staring down at them from high-flying flags and higher cheekbones. Originally sentenced to the dens, the two manage to escape their fate when they show their accidental kill of an earlier monster assailant and its severed paw to General Shao of the Bear Clan (Zhang Hanyu) and Commander Lin of the Crane Clan (Jing Tian).
This also intrigues their advisor and strategist, scholar Wang (Andy Lau), who wants to investigate how Garin managed to single-handedly dispose of the creature. A signal from afar sets off a warning that an unexpected premature attack is mounting and the troops rally under colourful flags and nunchucks-induced drumbeats to fight the mysterious monster – the Tao Tie.
Legend has it that these reptilian beasts were punishment sent from the heavens for an Emperor’s greed. They are hungry gremlins with insatiable appetites, harvesting human meat for their well-protected queen Tao Tie who reproduces the more she is fed. Oh, and she controls the entire horde with her mind, signalled by a quivering flap on her head. She is only foiled at world dominion by the sacrifice of the soldiers at the wall, and thus the story is set.
Armed with his bow and supernatural archery skills, Gamin saves a hapless soldier (Lu Han) from his death, and later fully wins the favour of the entire Nameless Order when he helps them to defeat the vicious beasts time and again.
The Great Wall is undeniably a visual splendour. Zhang’s finesse in painting scenes will always hold an audience captive. The structure is seen in day and night, through fog and moonlight to showcase the classical iconic beauty. The different soldier clans, with their diverse fighting styles, present a spectacle that is surely breathtaking. Backed by the formidable soundtrack from Ramin Djawadi (Game of Thrones) and Zhang’s perchance to include ingenious contraptions in his later films, like a nod to the Chinese finesse at inventions, the film will be a crowd-pleaser wanting their blockbuster entertainment to close the year.
But The Great Wall could have benefited from an additional 15 minutes (it is currently 105 minutes) because the rote script seemed to have forgotten to set the environment up, making caricatures out of the heavyweight actors. Maybe overburdened by the ensemble and crowded at the top (there’s a whopping 12 names in the producer rung), the focus dissipates and lands each actor precious few lines and the ones with more, banal and unconvincing.
Lin is an over-glorified Mu Lan, whose leadership is never really demonstrated, but fully respected when Shao hands over his reign to her. Lin’s philosophical thrusting at Garin, preaching “trust” as a value to fight for, is awkward and unpalatable. The repetition of the word “xin ren” (trust) by Garin is cringe-worthy. Damon himself suffers from his material, often trying his best to show his internal struggle with no script to back it up. His transformation from petty thief to honorable soldier is presented by way of dazed pacings and lingering looks at Lin or the landscape, whichever is available at the time.
Andy Lau’s Wang fares a little better, being able to expound on his theories about the Tao Tie. Lu Han also gives a memorable performance, as the dedicated but clumsy soldier. But sadly, for the others, they struggle not against imaginary monsters, but to root their presence on the screen. Even hot commodity Eddie Peng is reduced to only a few slow-motion scenes, one pandering to his fans with a topless shot.
Maybe this landmark project deserves a break. The line between Hollywood formulas and Chinese methods must have been redrawn many times, shifted with different audiences in mind. Fortunately, it pulls through, with enough enchanting scenes and thrilling fight sequences to satisfy most. And no don’t worry, it’s not a white savior film – well, not totally.
With the crossover and film-making cultural dissonance, the film suffers in plot and focus, but excels in visual storytelling under Zhang’s poetic hands.
The film is currently showing at all major cinemas.
First published: www.moviexclusive.com