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Tag Archive: Zhang Yimou


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.

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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.

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