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Review by C.J. Bunce

The best thing about reading a book about the making of a film, without first watching the film, is that your view of the book is not skewed by your opinion of the film.  If you knew nothing about The Great Wall, the new behind-the-scenes look in The Great Wall: The Art of the Film will prompt you to want to see it.  Not only will you find incredible concept art, set design, costumes, and props, the book itself is unique.  In the past five years “making of” film and art books have vastly improved in quality.  Abbie Bernstein’s new book from Titan Books features the best quality images, the best layouts, and the best book design of any book yet reviewed at borg.com–the book itself has a traditional Chinese book binding and gilded edges.  It also features an element left out of many film books these days–it includes images of the entire film, and doesn’t remove spoiler elements, such as, in this case, detailed images of the film’s monsters and ending (the art book for Star Wars: The Force Awakens provided no final image of Luke Skywalker and several costumes and props, as an example).

An icon of China cinema, the man behind several “art house” films in China and the opening ceremony at the Beijing Olympics, director Zhang Yimou discusses in the book why The Great Wall is unique and how it became the biggest production in China film history.  If you have watched stunning Chinese film work over the years and aren’t a fan of dubbed or subtitled films, the barrier is language–how can you connect U.S. and Chinese film audiences?  Yimou intended just that by making a Hollywood-esque film as a Chinese production in English with a cast and crew from dozens of nations, including more than 100 on-set translators.  Beyond that goal, the powerful imagery of the film as displayed throughout The Great Wall: The Art of the Film, is the stuff of Academy Award-winning costume design and art design.

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Along with interviews with Zhang are chapters featuring producer Peter Loehr, actors Matt Damon, Pedro Pascal, Jing Tian, and Willem Dafoe.  The most visually stunning chapters detail The Nameless Order, with Zhang’s color coding of each fighting corps, including the royal blue Crane Corps–the fighting unit consisting entirely of women.  We see frosted plastic pages displaying each corps symbol, and poster quality designs highlight each leader, along with their shields and weaponry.  Detailed sections feature the creation and design of the film’s monsters–the mythical Tao Tei–and how WETA and Industrial Light and Magic created them.  And each key sequence of the film is revealed with photographs of special effects and the actors in action.

So back to the book design.  The book includes gold foil cover art and insert pages to protect the ink of certain pages that feature full-color photographs.  Each chapter begins with a transparency page introducing the subject matter followed by a page featuring a symbol from the film.  Fold out pages detail maps and concept art.  A tipped in letter envelope tied together with a string containing pages from the Hall of Knowledge is a nice quality replica prop from the film that will help take readers into the film’s story.

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Marketing-wise The Great Wall–the movie–could have used some clarity.  Was it supposed to be obvious this was a giant monster movie fantasy steeped in the ancient mythology of China?  Most of the audiences that have seen the movie have given it a favorable rating.  Yet, like many a movie before it, other factors eliminate entire segments of audiences, for good or bad.  Take, for example, movies like The Golden Compass (boycotted by religious groups), Ender’s Game (boycotted because of the politics of the writer of the novel), Doctor Strange (boycotted for “whitewashing” a traditionally male Asian role now played by a Caucasian female), and the soon to be released Spider-man: Homecoming generated early flak (because Mary Jane may not be played by a caucasian as in the classic comic story).  For The Great Wall, the objection of some is Matt Damon’s lead role, a Caucasian lead in a medieval, epic story about China–whitewashing as discussed with respect to Doctor Strange–similar to criticisms when Tom Cruise was the lead in a Japanese-focused story in The Last Samurai.  Ultimately, moviegoers will decide. 

The Great Wall: The Art of the Film may cause readers to overcome any preconceptions they may have about the film.  The superb showcase of the film’s incredible artwork, its style, and its design, make this book among the decade’s best books about the making of a film.  It is available now here at Amazon.com.

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