The Great Wall
Earlier on FB, my friend D. brought up Matt Damon starring in Zhang Yimou's The Great Wall, and a few of us got grouchy about it all over again. Now, in the interest of full disclosure, this is just the latest in a series of things Damon has done to convince me not to spend my money on his projects, so I'm all out of benefit of the doubt where he's concerned. And I'm definitely full to the gills on whitewashing. (See: Iron Fist, The Ancient One, and this absolute fuckery. Not to mention this, this, this, this, and all of these.) But someone mentioned Zhang Yimou's defense of the movie, in which he claims that people have misunderstood the nature of the film and hopes they will be persuaded otherwise when they see it. He says, among other things:
There are five major heroes in our story and [Damon plays] one of them — the other four are all Chinese. The collective struggle and sacrifice of these heroes are the emotional heart of our film.
So, maybe I can muster some benefit of the doubt for the director. I'm willing to listen when he says that it's not what it looks like. In this particular case, I'll even go so far as to say that maybe the film will change people's minds, making it clear that it isn't "perpetuating the racist myth that [only a] white man can save the world."
But... All I've got right now is the English-language promotional materials that have been released so far, and I have to say—none of what I've seen does anything to get around the issues that Constance Wu and others have pointed to. I mean, have you seen the trailer? The poster? No? Ok. Let's watch it together.
The film is being released here by Legendary Pictures. Their main film page shows this as the first promotional image:
Not a great start, but let's click through and see what the trailer looks like.
Hm. Is that very large image still called a thumbnail? Whatever it's called, it's a shot of Matt Damon. Alone.
Let's press play.
Universal. Legendary. Ancient wonder. VERY BIG WALL and lots of background actors. It's definitely pretty. And, at about :20, Matt Damon is the first and only person we see. He walks with purpose. Maybe that only tells us that the marketing department assumes—and not without reason—that audiences will quickly recognize and be excited about Matt Damon walking with purpose.
OK. Let's see what else the trailer has to say.
More pretty. Hey, look, it's Matt Damon again (:27)! And you're right—he's with one of the Chinese actors playing...oh, wait, sorry—false alarm. He’s with Pedro Pascal, the Chilean-born American actor best known for his role as Oberyn “Red Viper” Martell on Game of Thrones. Ugh, I’m still so mad/sad about what happened to him. I'm psyched to see that he's in a movie!
But I digress—where are our Chinese heroes? And how did I get distracted from that? Surely the marketing didn't encourage me to focus on Pedro Pascal by dangling him in front of me, and next to the person it's already shown me is the star...
But let's keep going—this music is definitely making me want to know what all of this intense staring and walking around is about!
:29 - Oh, hi! We finally get a quick flash of Jing Tian, the Chinese actor (do we not say actress anymore? I don't really care much—just asking) who seems to be getting 5th billing in the materials that I can find.
Jing Tian recently costarred in a couple of big movies in China, including Police Story: Lockdown, where she plays Jackie Chan’s daughter. Here are the things she tweeted about The Great Wall earlier this year:
That second tweet links to a press release from Legendary, which begins:
“Film Stars Matt Damon along with Pedro Pascal, Willem Dafoe, and an All-Star Chinese Cast Comprised of Some of the Most Notable Names in the Chinese Film Industry”
That wording is...hm.
At :37, we finally get a quick flash of two of those Notable Names: Zhang Hanyu and Andy Lau. We get a good enough look at them, in movie trailer terms, to assume that they're important, even though we only see them staring...
Oh, but then there’s big music and a dramatic quick cut to a black screen—in a blockbuster trailer, that always means we’re going to see something awesome/important/scary! WHAT IS IT??? Wait for it…
WAIT FOR IT...
Oh. Matt Damon.
And then a series of quick flashes: Faceless Chinese soldiers. A MONSTER!!! Matt Damon leaping heroically. Pretty colors being worn by people who are probably important, but whose faces we don’t see. Someone who is hard to identify, but looks an awful lot like Matt Damon when you pause it, and is heroically out in front of a couple of other people (too fuzzy to see), heroically throwing a shield…
Are you sensing a pattern? Oh, I forgot to mention the Matt Damon voiceover about how he’s fought for all kinds of things, but never something so worthy as this.
As the trailer continues, we get a couple more flashes of people filmed in ways that do not encourage us to focus on them; one quick flash of someone heroically charging with a sword (my eyes are not good enough to identify the person in motion, and when paused their face is partially obscured by a helmet—it might be Jing Tian again?); another shot of Damon and Pascal (fighting back-to-back...heroically), and another lingering closeup of Damon, down but (probably) not out.
But you know what we don't get? There's not one shot of our 5 heroes together.
And we hear not one voice besides Damon’s. There is nothing to clue the viewer in to the fact that, to quote Yimou again, “The collective struggle and sacrifice of these heroes are the emotional heart of our film.”
So, I’m willing to listen when Yimou says people have got it wrong, but the trailer is doing nothing to show me that he’s right.
*Oh, and that foolproof marketing thing? As Wu points out:
Think only a huge movie star can sell a movie? That...has NEVER been a total guarantee. Why not TRY to be better? If white actors are forgiven for having a box office failure once in a while, why can't a POC sometimes have one? And how COOL would it be if you were the movie that took the "risk" to make a POC as your hero, and you sold the shit out of it?!
(links added by me, for illustrative purposes)