We Saw ‘The Great Wall’ to See Just How Offensive it Was to Asians

Last week, one of China’s most visionary directors, Zhang Yimou, released his latest and most “Hollywood” film yet — “The Great Wall”.

The film was initially marked with controversy in the Asian-American community for it’s apparent “Hollywood whitewashing” with the casting of Matt Damon as the lead character in a film largely based on Chinese culture.

However, it should be noted that the film, which is about a horde of monsters being kept at bay by the Great Wall of China, is a fantasy that takes place in a completely fictional version of China. Many have argued that Damon’s role should have been filled with that of an Asian star, considering Asians are sorely underrepresented in Hollywood as it is, but as those who have seen the film will agree, the role was cast specifically for a Westerner. It was not about a white guy pretending to be Chinese or saving all of China.

“The Great Wall” is, afterall, an international film. It was a co-production between Chinese and American producers, so it would only seem to make sense that a film packed with Chinese actors can fit two white guys and a Latino in to relate more to international audiences.

But with that being said, Asian-Americans and fans of Zhang Yimou’s films should perhaps shift their gaze from the “whitewashing” controversy to what the film is really guilty of — the sloppy and token display of Chinese cultural references. Even Chinese audiences, who still met the movie with a decent box-office opening, knew to focus their criticism on the action-packed but cheap storyline rather than fixate on presumed whitewashing theories.

If you’re expecting “The Great Wall” to be as visionary, richly symbolic and/or culturally accurate like Zhang’s other hit films “Hero” and “House of Flying Daggers”, you’re probably not going to like the film. This is Zhang’s first big-budget, CGI-heavy attempt at making an internationally entertaining Hollywood action film — keywords being “Hollywood action”. While the film is very rich in color and visually appealing, a theme Zhang is well known for, don’t look for much else in a film about fighting monsters on the Great Wall of China.

If you got time to kill and you’re looking for a film that includes some cool action scenes with monsters, explosions, warriors dressed in neat-looking armor and all of that taking place in a fictional but visually stunning China, then grab some popcorn and get yourself a movie ticket.

But for as superficial as the film may appear to be, Zhang did throw in some interesting plot points that, in one person’s opinion, completely defends it from any kind of “whitewashing” argument apart from the already stated fact that it was designed to be an  international film, not an exclusively Asian one.

Warning: Spoilers Ahead

After having seen the film, it’s once again plain to see that those who judged the whole movie based on the trailer need to relearn the most basic lesson in prejudice.

I went into this film ready to sniff out every instance that Matt Damon’s character would be thrust into the spotlight as the “white savior” and eventually save all of China. I was wrong, and I was actually surprised by how fair and refreshingly feminist the film turned out to be.

The plot in a nutshell is two Western mercenaries journey to China in search of extremely valuable gunpowder. After reaching the Great Wall, they are thrust into a raging war against drone-like monsters who threaten not just China, but the whole world. Along the way, Matt Damon’s character undergoes a transformation for the better as the battle moves from the Great Wall to the capital where the scourge is finally defeated.

Here’s how the film is more than fair:

1. If anything, the film kind of makes white people look foolish, greedy, and in desperate need of the honor and virtuousness that China has to offer. Of the three Caucasian characters in the movie, Ballard, played by Willem Dafoe, loses his life in an attempt to run off with stolen Chinese black powder which he planned to sell in Europe for a fortune.

The other “Caucasian” (in quotations because Spaniards aren’t typically considered Caucasian), played by Chilean-American actor Pedro Pascal, is kind of just there for comic relief and the ride in general. He hesitantly chose to ditch his friend and partner William, played by Damon, to escape with Ballard and the black powder but ended up being caught by guards and jailed. So one Westerner died of greed, the other ditched his friend for money.

Then there’s Matt Damon’s character — the casting everyone seems furious about. His character has been a mercenary ever since he could fight and cares for nothing but the money. But throughout his journey in China, his “yellow fever” for Commander Lin Mae, played by Jing Tian, helps him see that there is more to being a warrior than fighting for money — honor, justice and respect are things no one can ever buy. By the end of the film, William is a better person for having gone to China.

2. The argument for the “White Savior” and speculation that he’s the love interest of the main female character is pretty debased.

Along his journey, William does develop a crush on Commander Mae, though it’s not hard to imagine why given she’s a beautiful woman who commands respect and power and is an equally skilled warrior. It’s important to note that their relationship never goes beyond professional. William never kisses Mae. In the end, they part professionally, and while he alludes to wishing he could stay at the Great Wall with Mae, he chooses to take his partner and head back to Europe with nothing but the honor and respect they gained in China.

3. Matt Damon does not save all of China. Towards the end of the conflict, it does come down to a carefully placed shot to end the monster scourge once and for all. William takes two shots at it and fails each time. In the end, it’s Commander Mae that succeeds in stopping the monster scourge and saving all of China. If anything, it was a team effort to stop the monsters, though rightfully it was a Chinese warrior (and a woman, no less) who pulled it off. Matt Damon literally couldn’t save China.

4. Lastly, I found Zhang’s film is surprisingly feminist, meaning that the lead female character had an equal, if not greater, status than her male counterparts.

It’s pretty well-known that women didn’t exactly have rights during the middle ages were no more than objects men needed to make babies. But in Zhang’s fictional middle-aged China, women are skilled warriors of equal status. Jing’s character, Commander Lin Mae, leads a whole squadron of female fighters and is ranked among the senior officers under the general.

When a monster attack claims the life of the general, it is Lin Mae who gets promoted to General of the Nameless Army. She leads the war effort to the capital and in the final fight, when all seems lost, it is her who makes the kill shot to stop the monster army. It was in fact a Chinese woman who saves all of China. She parts with William in the end to remain on the wall and defend her country.

It also appears that Phil Wang from Wong Fu Productions also echo our sentiments.

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