Sunday, April 22, 2018

The Great Wall (2016)

China, in what I assume to be about the 11th Century C.E. Mercenary William (Matt Damon, apparently doing some kind of accent that may or may not supposed to be Irish but most certainly isn’t) and a small group of colleagues of whom only his closest buddy, the cynical Tovar (Pedro Pascal), will live long enough to be worth mentioning, have come to China to steal black powder. Not the secret of making it, mind you, these guys really seem to be aiming to cart a bunch of the stuff out of the country.

As if playing hide and seek with angry desert tribes weren’t enough to whittle a group down to next to nothing, these merry idiots encounter a lizard monster thingie, too, which they manage to kill, while leaving only William and Tovar alive. When they can’t escape the latest group of said angry riders anymore afterwards, they save themselves by surrendering to the garrison of the conveniently placed Great Wall. The Wall, it will turn out, isn’t just there to defend against human enemies, but to protect the more pleasant parts of China, especially the capital, against a horde of evil lizard thingies who pop out of a mountain every six decades or so after a meteor crashed down there.

Once they’ve decided not to kill the weird foreigners, who managed to conquer one of the lizard thingies and the two have proven themselves in an attack of the lizards, the Chinese defenders kinda-sorta bring out the best in William. Their strategist Wang (Andy Lau Tak-wa) is after all a very reasonable man, and Crane Corps commander Lin Mae (Jing Tian), after a short phase of wanting to kill William, learns to like and respect him and teaches him the meaning of fighting for things bigger than one’s own survival. Also, she’s as cute as she’s competent. At the same time, Tovar and an long-time prisoner/guest of the Chinese named Ballard (Willem Dafoe) are still very much into stealing themselves some black powder, because clearly, evil lizard thingies take the back seat for that. What will William choose, and more importantly, how dramatic will the fight against the lizard thingies get?

Historical fantasy adventure The Great Wall is a peculiar first partial English language film for the great Zhang Yimou to direct. Sure, his later Chinese films show a good idea of the marketable, and an ability to have deeply propagandistic elements stand next to others that very much subvert the propaganda again without getting himself into too hot waters with the censors. However this is clearly a film aiming to stand with one foot in the realm of blockbuster films from the USA and the other in that from and for China, and I’m not at all sure his aesthetics fit the US blockbuster market too well beyond certain critic and fan circles that won’t fill a cinema full.

It’s a bit ironic, too, for The Great Wall’s greatest strength is indeed visual spectacle, it just doesn’t feel like the kind of spectacle you get from Marvel, DC, or (Cthulhu help us) Michael Bay at all, and a mass market audience supposedly hates new things and different perspectives (even though some of the past years’ hits suggest otherwise). Personally, I am pretty happy with these parts of the film, and whenever Zhang goes for high visual excitement, the film soars, particularly because the director is free from any silly ideas of making a historically authentic epic. Instead, there are soaring scenes of masses of pretty people in colour-coded armour fighting off the genuinely excellent and inventive monsters, the absurd and utterly awesome crane diving fighting technique of the all-female crane corpse (who probably only not simply fly like in other Chinese movies not to confuse a Western audience that should be used to this sort of thing by now), the pre-climactic balloon chase(!) and more than just a couple of other wonderful flights of fancy. It’s basically a Western/Asian pulp adventure with a sense of wonder.

Of course, the pulp bit also explains the film’s weakness: the mostly bland and clichéd characterization, and a plot that seems out to exclusively hit the most expected beats at the most expected moments. But hey, at least the script contains a group of female warriors it treats matter of factly as just as competent and heroic as their peers without anybody going “you’re a woman!?” or trying to make a cut of the film in which women don’t exist.

So, seen as pure spectacle and monster-fighting, culture-uniting bit of fun, I really enjoyed The Great Wall. It certainly beats most of the other recent attempts at very consciously constructing films for the US and Chinese markets at once.

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