Friday, February 24, 2017

The Great Wall (2017)

Directed by: Zhang Yimou
Runtime: 1hr, 43mins
Action, Fantasy

This is a film I’ve been cautiously optimistic about since hearing of its inception at least a year or two ago. Zhang Yimou is a director capable of making satisfying personal dramas on a big budget. He’s also proven himself capable of directing on perhaps the biggest scale imaginable when he took the world on a tour through Chinese history during the 2008 Beijing Olympic opening ceremony. He’s a director who has earned a lasting reputation as one of the most talented visual filmmakers to work on big budget films that rival, and often exceed, the quality of Hollywood blockbusters (see Hero, House of Flying Daggers, and Curse of the Golden Flower). That’s why poorly received initial trailers and negative early reviews (despite strong international box office numbers) surprised me. If anyone could pull off a huge spectacle, Chinese/American co-production with eyes set on worldwide success, it was Zhang Yimou.

For years Hollywood has been trying to improve their international box office by casting international movie stars alongside famous western faces (Independence Day: Resurgence with its tacked on Chinese side characters and subplots come to mind). Even China has been known to cast westerners in their big budget films (Zhang Yimou even cast Christian Bale in his 2011 war drama The Flowers of War), and more and more of China’s box office successes (even those without famous westerners in them) have been making the trip overseas to American theaters - albeit most of them in limited release. Why stop a film’s success at your local box office when there’s tons more money to be made outside your native country? That goes doubly so in America, whose box office numbers for summer blockbusters are continually better internationally than at home.

So what went wrong here? First of all, it’s important to note it isn’t a “whitewashed” film about a westerner saving a helpless China, though it isn’t terribly far from it. Despite the fact this is mainly a Chinese film - made in cooperation with western filmmakers - about east and west coming together for the betterment of the world, detractors wanting to tear down the film with terms like “whitewashing” will likely not be convinced otherwise by what they see on screen. However, there seems to be a misunderstanding of what “whitewashing” actually is. “Whitewashing” is the problematic Hollywood choice of casting western actors in roles clearly meant for other ethnicities (see Mickey Rooney in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, or Rooney Mara in Pan, or pretty much the entire cast of Gods of Egypt). That’s clearly not what happened here. The parts in question were always intended for western actors. However, the problem has become so pervasive that people now look to find it even in places it doesn’t exist. In fact, to tear down the film in this way is to entirely miss the film’s positive message of unity and cooperation. The Great Wall has many problems, but “whitewashing” isn’t one of them.

The other big question surrounding the film was in regard to its CGI. I’ve seen a still from the now infamous “bad CGI trailer,” and I’ll say it’s not that bad. In general, you either have subtle CGI used to enhance practical sets and effects, or you have epic fantasy CGI where most of the set is green screened. Even then sometimes there are good and bad examples of the latter. This is somewhere in the middle. Sometimes the film is incredibly stunning, while other times it suffers from a very green screened look. Either way it’s essentially what you’ve come to expect from big budget CGI effects. It’ll bother some more than others, but it shouldn’t be the sticking point so many have made it out to be. However, I will say the trailer at the end of this post did a decent job of hiding the CGI beasts which added a needed bit of mystery the final film is lacking. Oh to think of what might have been with a bit more subtlety.

One of the film’s actual problems, at least for some, is the premise itself. It recasts the Great Wall of China as the epicenter of Earth’s defense against bizarre, hive minded, mythical beasts that resemble giant, toothy lizards with big round eyes on the sides of their head (they serve as their primary weak point). They come out of a hole in the ground every 60 years to find food for their queen. If it weren’t for the forces stationed along the wall, they’d expand in number and take over the entire world. Text at the beginning of the film claim it to be based on one of the many legends surrounding the Great Wall. It’s fantasy, it’s historical fiction, not terribly dissimilar to something like Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter. It’s a somewhat absurd reimagining of history as over-the-top action-oriented monster movie fare. That fact alone may turn viewers off, but if you’re still onboard by this point, you might just find something to like. After all, even Tolkien's Lord of the Rings with all its fantasy elements can be seen as an allegory of World War I.

Another of the film’s many problems is the fact that it casts so many famous faces so it can put a lot of big names on the marketing material, but gives most of them nothing to do in the story. The only characters that end up mattering are the ones played by Matt Damon and Tian Jing. Andy Lau, Pedro Pascal, and Willem Dafoe see a decent amount of screen time, but are, nevertheless, largely wasted here. Yet that leaves other famous faces like Eddie Peng, Hanyu Zhang, and Kenny Lin as little more than set decoration - not to mention the other names I didn’t recognize but the filmmakers thought warranted special recognition in the closing credits. The film relies heavily on a buddy dynamic between the Damon and Pascal characters, but neither of them sell it. Damon stiffly maintains a blank expression and a bizarre semi-European-sounding accent that comes and go frequently (there are hints of Irish and Scottish accents in there somewhere). Pascal, on the other hand, speaks in a low growl much of the time, and maintains just as blank an expression as Damon. The script offers them a few feeble attempts at jokey, sarcastic buddy moments, but they rarely warranted so much as a chuckle at the screening I attended.

Damon and Pascal play William and Tovar, respectively. They’re traveling mercenaries hoping to score gunpowder, a rarity outside of China, in the hopes of selling it to make a fortune. However, their camp is attacked by one of the Tao Tei (the aforementioned monsters), but William is able to cut off one of its limbs and knock it into a chasm. Later, when they’re inevitably caught between bandits and The Nameless Order (a special military order tasked with defending the wall), the monstrous limb serves as a key towards cooperation. However, trust doesn’t come readily until William and Tovar prove their prowess in battle, which doesn’t come until the film’s first spectacular battle sequence. It shows off the unique color pallet of each division within The Nameless Order, identified by their color coded suits of armor - the archers in red, foot soldiers in purple, and a group of fearless bungee jumping, spear wielding women in blue. They’re shown off in action through awe inspiring, sweeping wide shots highlighted by multitudes of fiery catapult shots. It’s the film’s best, most confident sequence. It mostly maintains the perspective of William and Tovar witnessing the startling prowess of each of these divisions. That is, of course, until we start to see how many of them fall to the vast horde of beasts anyway.

Shortly thereafter we learn the true difference between The Nameless Order and these two mercenaries, and the ultimate message the film wants to get across. While William and Tovar are greedily looking out for themselves and accustomed to working alone, the defenders are made up of large groups of warriors all working together to selflessly give their lives in defense of a world that has no idea. While initially William and Commander Lin (Jing Tian) butt heads over their differing ideologies, William grows sympathetic to their cause over time. Witnessing their loyalty, honor, and teamsmanship has a profound affect on him. However, each step he takes in an effort to work with them forces a growing rift between he and Tovar, who had intended to continue with their ill-advised plan to sneak away with as much black powder as they could carry.

To that end, Tovar enlists the help of Ballard (Willem Dafoe), who, similarly, had been traveling in search of black powder before being captured at the wall. Ballard sees the arrival of William and Tovar as a perfect opportunity to steal the powder and flee while The Nameless Order is busy fighting off another Tao Tei attack. However, when Ballard and Tovar eventually do try to make an escape, William can’t help but participate in the battle. That does lead to a separation of the two central buddies for a while, but it plays like a needless distraction adding little to the story. In fact, it seems to hinder the momentum of the far more interesting action at the wall any time the film cuts away to follow Ballard and Tovar enacting their schemes. Also far more interesting is William’s budding friendship with Commander Lin. There’s not much chemistry there, but there’s just enough to make the film better when they’re together. However, their relationship is never anything more than a platonic one. I can give the filmmakers credit for not forcing a romance on the proceedings, yet more needed to be done to establish whatever it was William stayed and continued fighting for.

And as for those action sequences, there are more near the middle of the film and again toward the end, but none of them recapture the grandeur of the first one. In fact, they continue to become more over-the-top and unlikely with each new sequence. That isn’t to say there isn’t some genuinely inventive techniques on display, but the sequences themselves tend to require an acceptance of sci-fi and fantasy elements that it may not earn for some viewers.

This is an audacious experiment of a movie that could never have worked, but it very nearly does. It's a movie that, without question, would have benefited from more lore and world building, more character development, a more careful setup, and ultimately a less cliché climax. And because the characters and performances are so underwhelming, it’s unlikely to even satisfy that “so bad it’s good” market. But it does have a positive message about working together and setting your own desires aside in favor of the greater good. It’s heart is certainly in the right place, even if the execution is off. When you step back and look at the film from a distance, it’s central message actually becomes something of a metacommentary on the idea of filmmaking for a global market.

It’ll be remembered as a bad movie, and maybe that’s all it deserves, but I hope it does well. I hope it opens the door for more of these international co-productions. For the most part, they haven’t produced good films yet, but it’ll happen sooner or later. I’m in favor of a more unified world where art and entertainment is shared and understood across cultural lines. If these films help toward that end, I’ll continue to watch them. If nothing else, It might just be a useful entry point for western viewers into asian film, specifically wuxia films, for the uninitiated remaining reluctant at the prospect of reading subtitles for an entire film (the vast majority of this film is in English). Just do yourself a favor and see it before judging it based on rumors of “whitewashing” and “bad CGI.”

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