Following the election of a pumpkin-skinned President and the associated Trumpification of American politics, film critics have been on the look out for movies that might in some way correspond to the zeitgeist. Observers down in the mouth about the present political situation in the White House have, for example, suggested comedies or musicals boast renewed currency in these doom and gloom times. La La Land might be a bit fluffy, the logic goes, but surely that is what we need right now.
No doubt they have a point. But man, Chinese director Yimou Zhang’s fantastical, candy-coloured, $150 million epic The Great Wall is something else. Not just the most ostentatious cinematic tourism video since Baz Luhrmann’s Australia, but the first blockbuster movie to truly make sense (in a strange sort of way) during the Trump administration.
Zhang’s vertiginous, action-packed ode to China’s world-famous 1700-years-in-the-making feat of border control is about nationalism. It’s about contraband (mysterious black powder with strange powers). It’s about a great, dirty big wall.
It is also an exercise in propaganda: a salute to China’s military might and unbreakable lockstep camaraderie. In true Trump era style, there’s hypocrisy at the heart of all this — or maybe we can just call it irony. Namely that The Great Wall, a popcorn movie about nationalism, is also a China/Hollywood co-production. Some power-brokers and cheque-writers are hoping it will usher in a new era of film industry collaboration.
Matt Damon, with an accent that oscillates inexplicably from American-ish to Irish-ish, takes the lead as William, a lone warrior-type figure in need of a shave. With the assistance of his fellow mercenary and best friend Tovar (Pedro Pascal) he slays countless ugly green monsters and pulls off destined-for-the-trailer party tricks involving catching rice bowls with arrows. Kevin Costner in Prince of Thieves, eat your heart out.
It is this kind of American-enters-foreign-land-and-wows-crowd showmanship that drew early allegations The Great Wall was whitewashing, the West exporting another Caucasian saviour. That criticism may have been a little trigger happy. Matt Damon is a warrior of gobsmacking skill, yes, and Tovar’s axe-swinging abilities are up there with the best of anything Middle Earth might have to offer. But the Chinese boast superior attributes: dignity, work ethic, collective purpose and all-round moral superiority.
Set in the time of the Song dynasty, we meet William and Tovar as they trek through the dangerous Gobi Desert. These early moments play like scenes from spaghetti westerns, emphasising the vastness of the land and displaced, journeying characters. The pair are on the hunt for black powder but, upon arriving at the titular wall, are imprisoned by Chinese soldiers who belong to a secretive military outfit (ironically named the Nameless Order).
“You can still see The Matrix’s influence here, when motion freezes and time pauses to allow extreme realignment of the frame. And it’s still a fabulous effect.”
Their sole purpose is to fend off Taoties, the aforementioned green monsters who attack every 60 years, trying to break through the wall. William and Tovar grudgingly lend a hand, at the expense of several of William’s (apparently self-replenishing) arrows. Another westerner, the prisoner-cum-English teacher Sir Ballard, potters around all suspicious and Snape-like. In a casting decision that will surprise no-one, he’s played by Willem Dafoe. The story gets a little repetitive (lots of wall; few location changes) but the aesthetics never tire.
To say the film is visually captivating doesn’t do the work of Zhang and his two cinematographers (Stuart Dryburgh and Xiaoding Zhao) justice. The look and feel of The Great Wall couldn’t be further from the rapid-fire chop-chop-chop style de rigueur in Hollywood. The Michael Bay school of filmmaking, whether everything in the editing room is slashed into tiny pieces — and the effect is like having a lidless blender turned on and pointed at your face.
Zhang went to a different class. The director (whose films include 2002’s Hero and 2004’s House of Flying Daggers) is unafraid to hold the frame, allowing us to savour the beauty of his compositions. Many of The Great Wall’s jaw-dropping shots contain considerable vertical depth, the signature image comprising soldiers battling from atop the wall.
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To place fighters in the thick of action, the director attaches Nameless Order troops to bungee cord-like ropes that allow them to jump over the edge and lunge head first towards foe, spears in hand. You can still see The Matrix’s influence here, when motion freezes and time pauses to allow extreme realignment of the frame. And it’s still a fabulous effect.
Fabulous, too, is a scene that takes place with two characters inside a tower. William is one of them; he goes further and further up said tower, looking for a good place to shoot an arrow. The tower is decorated with terrific rainbow coloured windows, majestic iridescent light streaming in, like a giant Mardi Gras flag has been wrapped around a shooting star. It’s a shame the person accompanying him is a woman (Commander Lin, played by Jing Tian) and not Tovar, because this scene could have made an awesome allegory about LGBT pride.
Gay rights, however, wasn’t a key issue in Trump’s election. As with the film, his audience pitch was more about the wall, the fear of others and providing good old fashioned (if calamitous) spectacle. It stands to reason that the first blockbuster that makes sense amid all this Trumpification would follow Donald’s campaign points.