Review by C.J. Bunce
It is a study in East meets West, or at least it tries really hard to be. Visually The Great Wall will likely be the most beautiful film you see this year. The worldbuilding is on a grand scale, epic, and worthy of the historic monumental icon of China. The intelligently thought out military structure and interplay of weapons, color, purpose, props, and costumes is second perhaps only to Peter Jackson’s Tolkien world fantasy films. The costumes are exquisite–detailed, rich, stylized, ornate, and simply phenomenal. But like many big movies this year, it is a weak story that keeps The Great Wall from its potential.
If you’re a fan of classic action films from China, you will have no problem jumping right into the action of The Great Wall. But if you’re easily distracted by new things, you probably should skip this one. Its style of storytelling and dialogue are unique for a mainstream Western release so it is understandable why the film had problems attracting audiences here, even beyond all of the politics that accompanied its release (the objection of some in 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). And if you don’t like subtitles, you probably won’t be drawn to The Great Wall. But you’d be missing something spectacular. So many features make the biggest budget film in China’s history worthy of at least one viewing.
You’ll find much telling instead of showing, something better films of the Western tradition endeavor to avoid. You’ll witness soldiers marveling at what by all counts is an epic military battle, but then they actually state as much. It’s a quirky thing that will probably make the average Western moviegoer shudder a bit. Yet if you look beyond the almost characteristically Eastern movie abrupt dialogue shifts, interspersed tangent story elements and nonlinear style, you’ll find some great takeaways. Like one of the year’s best, badass heroines in Tian Jing’s swashbuckling Commander-turned-General Lin Mae–a powerful dragon killer in command of the entire Chinese army whose cliff-diving daredevilry and death-defying air balloon war machines evoke the best World War II movie action sequences. The martial arts stuntwork is like that of no other movie this year. The special effects are impressive, especially the interplay of set construction and battle scenes and heretofore unseen methods of combat and destruction used to defend the wall. The purely CGI creations–WETA and Industrial Light & Magic’s mythic Tao Tei dragons–look real, and they even have their own layered culture with the ability to plan an intelligent battle strategy.
The Great Wall: The Art of the Film (reviewed earlier here at borg.com) should be a required companion to seeing the film. The Herculean crew effort, mixing together a legion of international creators, illustrates how ambitious the director really was. 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 discussed in the book why The Great Wall is unique. 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 could he connect U.S. and Chinese film audiences? Zhang Yimou intended just that, by making a Hollywood-esque film as a joint effort, Chinese-led production in the English language with a cast and crew from dozens of nations, including more than 100 on-set translators. Unfortunately The Great Wall is probably too ambitious in its effort to breach the East-West divide. Tradition wins out instead of clarity. Context is missing, resulting in a lack of gravitas despite an entire region of lives in peril and a film filled with wall to wall clashes. Yet the film was an unquestionable success in the international market.
Ultimately for Western audiences The Great Wall will be a stunning visual treat peppered with quality actors–an all-star Chinese cast Eastern audiences will marvel at, plus a standout newcomer with Peng Yong as an anxious but loyal soldier. It has a powerhouse production team, but lacks a compelling story. It’s not Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, but for many it will be just as much fun. Watch it for its set design, costumes, epic battles, and Tian Jing’s General Lin Mae and her royal blue Crane Corps.
The Great Wall is available here at Amazon and streaming on Vudu, Amazon, OnDemand, and GooglePlay.