By Thomas Simpson
The issue of whitewashing in Hollywood is raised yet again with Matt Damon’s new film The Great Wall. Directed by Zhang Yimou, the film was faced with much criticism before release due to the white man being perceived as the potential hero in medieval china.
Damon is clearly the star here but his character isn’t the prototypical savior we’re expecting. Away from all the controversy, there’s an action film saturated in Chinese mythology that features one of the largest Chinese casts ever assembled. For the general audience most importantly, it’s a lot of fun.
Damon (William) and Pedro Pascal (Tovar) are part of a group of mercenaries that are exploring China in search of a valuable black powder. With some of the men already killed by bandits, a mysterious creature savages the rest leaving only William and Tovar alive. William manages to slay the beast, severing an arm in the process. They soon encounter the Great Wall and are taken prisoner by a secretive military sect called the Nameless Order tasked with guarding China by the same monsters that William killed. Faced by an onslaught by the creatures, named The Tao Tei, William’s captors soon realize that the prisoners may be more useful as allies.
What follows is a generic and familiar story arc that centers on the relationship between William and Commander Lin Mae (Jing Tian). The plot is predictable and offers little in the way of surprise, but what it lacks in depth it makes up for in visuals. Fans of Yimou will be well versed in the director’s graceful martial art style as well as his penchant for rich and beautiful colors. The color coded regiments of the Nameless Order contrast wonderfully with the grey mist of the Great Wall and provide striking imagery.
The Tao Tei themselves aren’t the most groundbreaking of CGI designs but they are threatening in their utter barbarity and although The Great Wall doesn’t rely on gore, Yimou isn’t shy in showcasing brutal murder scenes without focusing on the carnage. The script is a little heavy on the exposition with regards to the Tao Tei however the sequence is wonderfully presented as a compelling story.
Although it would be unfair to tarnish the film with the white savior narrative it does veer into this territory on occasion. It shouldn’t be much of a surprise considering the star power of Damon, whose character works best because he is an outsider. William’s relationship with Lin doesn’t diminish the latter’s own hero journey culminating in a visually stunning climax.
The Great Wall is a stylish fantasy tale that’s easy on the eyes. It won’t go down as either Damon or Yimou’s greatest work but it is pleasurable and exciting popcorn fodder.
Thomas Simpson is a writer and filmmaker based in Glasgow, U.K. Find him on Twitter: @Simmy41.