Let’s get the unpleasant part out of the way first. Was The Great Wall (China Film Group, Universal) an example of whitewashing and Asian stereotyping? I think the short answer is no, but since I’m a 64-year-old white guy, that could sound insensitive if I don’t explain myself further. Let’s pause for a picture. Below is one of the posters for the movie’s release in China.
And here is the version for the U. S. market. It’s not hard to notice that Matt Damon is front and center. Is this racist? Does it represent the hidebound thinking about marketing which is prevalent in the entertainment industry? To me, the latter seems more likely since Matt Damon is probably the most recognizable name among those of the cast, at least for a western audience.
From the reading I did, I gathered that this movie was never intended to be a strictly Chinese story and that it was a cooperative effort between American and Chinese studios. In fact, it was made by something like 1,300 people from 37 countries. If there was Asian stereotyping, Chinese audiences evidently didn’t think so. This was not an American misrepresentation of Asian culture any more than western fantasies are misrepresentations of western culture. the film was directed by Zhang Yimou, one of China’s most legendary directors, and he included many elements of Chinese folklore, architecture, clothing, and ancient technology in his fanciful embellishments.
Also, Matt Damon wasn’t given a role originally intended for a Chinese character. As for criticisms of the authenticity of his accent, this is neither a new nor newsworthy phenomenon. In the old “sword and sandal” epics, Romans speak with British accents, and who can forget Highlander, in which Sean Connery (a Scot) was cast as a Spaniard while Christopher Lambert (a Frenchman) was cast as a Scot? I was able to enjoy Matt Damon’s performance for what it was in spite of any inaccuracies.
The cast (including Jing Tian, Willem Dafoe, Andy Lau, Pedro Pascal, and Wang Junkai) was voluminous and diverse. The inclusion of a few, mercenary Europeans in the storyline didn’t strike me as racist or even odd because most cultures haven’t existed in vacuums historically. There are many examples of intercultural contact, trade, and exchange throughout history, and it is impossible (or nearly so) to contain ideas and influences within geographical borders for indefinite periods of time. For me, the East/West conflict of priorities gave the plot more depth. Incidentally, the Chinese characters – with their sense of honor, sacrifice, and communal duty – were by far the more honorable.
Based on some of the criticisms I read and on personal observations of responses to other works, I’m beginning to wonder whether some modern critics track well with metaphor and re-imagined myth. Criticizing a deliberately epic monster movie for not matching the standards of a documentary, serious drama, or art film seems akin to giving a fast food joint low marks for its lack of French cuisine. Appreciation is often about expectation, and a film can be judged for what it is rather than for what it is not trying to be. Not all of the barriers we erect are geographical.
So… next week I’ll actually review the movie.