#REVIEW: “THE GREAT WALL”
Review by Jonathan Godfrey for Mr. Will Wong
The marriage of Chinese and American cinema was inevitable. Shortly after Americans were educated on motion photography in the 1880s, the Chinese were taught the same techniques in the 1890s. Over the next 100+ years, these two countries would develop the most lucrative, privately-funded Film industries in the world. Both countries have thrived artistically and financially, and over the last few decades their relationship has elevated cinematically. The Great Wall is the most poignant contemporary example of Chinese-American cinema. For those of you unaware, last summer China’s wealthiest cinema owner purchased a successful American studio. Though The Great Wall began production before the merger, it is nevertheless an excellent inaugural release for the Wanda Group & Legendary Pictures. Directed by visionary Zhang Yimou, the Film takes place during the Song Dynasty (960 – 1279 CE), and follows two European thieves scouring China for gunpowder.
Matt Damon plays William, a criminal on the cusp of change. With his friend Tovar (Pedro Pascal), they escape the pursuit of murderous bandits only to be captured by an army at war. The Nameless Order are a clandestine division of the Emperor’s army, and are tasked to guard the northern wall and protect the capital. Their enemies are the Taotei, an alien species who punish the Empire every 60 years. They symbolize the insatiable greed of humanity, and are feared for that very reason.
Tian Jing plays Lin Mae, a warrior on the verge of greatness. Lin is the leader of the Crane Group, an all-female division whose acrobatic feats harken back to other great works from Zhang Yimou whereas the plot harkens back to classic Hollywood cinema. This is a character-driven Film with a narrative that follows their choices. William and Lin act as two halves of a whole. The Western William seeks redemption, and the Eastern Lin seeks virtue. Together we see how such differing goals can unite in the face of danger.
The Film moves quickly, and never gets dull. This is thanks to a bevy of celebrated writers who worked on the story and the script. It’s a picturesque Film as well, with an array of artistry captured by two great Cinematographers: Stuart Dryburgh (The Piano); and Xiaoding Zhao (House of Flying Daggers). It’s also full of interesting elements, and I will end with two. First, the alien Taotei take their name from a mythological beast as well as an artistic motif arguably as old as the Neolithic peoples of China (3400 – 2250 BCE). The patterns dominant in this motif can be found in the designs of the Taotei themselves. Last, but not least, Andy Lau who plays Strategist Wang shares the screen with Matt Damon. This is uncanny as Damon’s character in The Departed was originally played by Andy Lau in Infernal Affairs. Proving the roots of Chinese-American cinema run deep, and its fruits are still forthcoming with Films like The Great Wall.
Universal Pictures Canada release THE GREAT WALL Friday, February 17, 2017.