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‘The Great Wall’ is a colorful foray into Hollywood filmmaking for China’s Zhang Yimou

by

Special To The Japan Times

“The Great Wall,” a lavish Hollywood production that looks like it cost a gazillion dollars (or, more accurately, $150 million), is directed by China’s Zhang Yimou — or Yimou Zhang as he’s now known on many online film sites.

In recent years, Zhang’s name has been flipped into Western style — first name first — more often. And why not? “The Great Wall” marks his foray into mainstream Hollywood and in doing so, he might be looking to distance himself from the Chinese film scene.

Zhang’s career kicked off in the late 1980s with “Red Sorghum,” a period tale with heavy political undertones that introduced a style that has permeated the past 15 years of his work: democratic tones mixed with not-so-subtle jabs at communist bureaucracy. It got him in trouble with the Chinese government, but has endeared him to the Western market.

The Great Wall (3.5)
Run Time 103 mins
Language English, MANDARIN

“The Great Wall” was a hit in China when it was released there last year. That’s not surprising as it’s incredibly visually impressive, demonstrating the sheer scale and range of what the Chinese entertainment industry — dramatically changed from the days of “Red Sorghum” — can do when it teams up with Hollywood star power, which in this case means Matt Damon, Willem Dafoe and “Game of Thrones” star Pedro Pascal.

Story-wise, it’s “Game of Thrones” with a dollop of Zhang’s 2011 film “The Flowers of War” starring Christian Bale. The battle scenes are spectacularly choreographed, and the narrative hinges on a Westerner who shifts his own perspective from being self-centred to self-sacrificing. In “The Great Wall” this Westerner is William (Damon), and the woman who convinces him to check his attitude is a Chinese commander named Lin Mae (Tian Jing).

She’s not the only one who gets William to see things differently; he comes to realize that, at the Great Wall, individuals cease to exist. Each soldier is one appendage of a huge defense system, all of them sacrificing their lives for a greater good.

Zhang depicts the warriors in a way that make them seem like living versions of China’s famed terra-cotta army. Legions upon legions of them surge onto the screen in beautifully color-coded uniforms, their every action defined by economy, discipline and elegance. Until now, William thought the only motive for battle was greed — that’s before he sees their enemy.

The menace that China has mobilized against is a swarm of reptilian green monsters that emerge every 60 years to feast on human flesh. The soldiers have been groomed their whole lives to destroy these monsters, and they kill a few with swords but soon their bodies are gnashed between gigantic jaws in what can only be described as a suicide mission.

The battle scenes are taken from Chinese film tradition — swords and spears comprise the main weaponry, along with cannons and some precious gunpowder — but there are a lot of fantastical stunts as the warriors take flight into the fray.

The real star here isn’t Damon, Tian or action star Andy Lau (given far too little screen time as a strategist named Wang), it’s the Great Wall itself, a formidable piece of Chinese history and identity that Zhang deftly transitions into the setting for some good ol’ American butt-kicking action — a feat only Yimou Zhang could pull off.