Friday, February 24, 2017

The Great Wall

I don’t read a lot of reviews before writing, but I’ve seen enough (and seen enough reporting on same) to get the impression that The Great Wall wasn’t particularly well-received in either China or the USA, to a certain extent because each thought that it was too much made for the other. I suppose, then, that this might have been why I liked it so much; as a guy who unapologetically likes both big Hollywood blockbusters and Chinese action, halfway between is likely a sort of sweet spot for me, especially when there’s a bit of goofiness to it. Maybe it was also a case of a stressful period at work and really wanting to see Matt Damon, Jing Tian, and Andy Lau kill some monsters.

Especially Andy Lau. I was genuinely shocked to discover that this was his first Western movie; as much as he’s a superstar in Asia and thus doesn’t really need exposure on the other side of the Pacific - I saw a movie a year or two ago where he cameo’d as himself with the point being that he’s as hugely popular a singer now as he was twenty years earlier - that was the case for Jackie Chan, Chow Yun-fat, and the like in the years before the Hong Kong handover. Given how often he had co-starred with them, how many of their movies would at least partially shoot in Hong Kong, and how he just works a ton, you would think that he would have had a supporting part in something over the last twenty-five years, but that’s not the case. Perhaps that’s why, when I pointed out to a friend who likes Hong Kong movies that this was Lau’s first role that a lot of Americans would see, he didn’t know who the guy was, even though once he started looking on IMDB, he’d seen a lot of things with Lau in it.

Sadly, the movie doesn’t seem to be a hit, and I’m kind of amused at how hard it’s apparently proving to be to make one of these “world market” movies meant to play in both China and America work. Skiptrace went pretty much straight to VOD here; Rogue One was a big hit but not nearly the breakout in China you’d expect. XXX: Return of Xander Cage apparently did pretty good in China, but not so well here. The Great Wall does okay in both spots.

Not being able to deliberately crack the code is probably all to the good, though; I’d much rather get movies with diverse casts being made by people who legitimately have global influences than something made in a lab to calculatedly appeal to disparate audiences.

Oh, and the half-written opening I mention below starts by noting how the Universal logo naturally tends to fall on North America, so focusing it on China so that this movie could do a zoom-from-space not only meant a weird sort of eclipse effect so that we didn’t see it turning all the way to China, but when the continents were visible again, the globe was spinning the wrong way. Hard not to see it as a metaphor if you’re looking for it, and I wonder if the animators were thinking about that as they executed the instructions to make the logo more dynamic.

The Great Wall

* * * (out of four)
Seen 21 February 2017 in AMC Boston Common #2 (first-run, Imax 3D)

I had a whole opening paragraph about how even the animation of the studio logo at the start of The Great Wall served to illustrate how the current attempts to engineer world-wide hits that played equally well in China and the West was a fool’s errand, but then something unexpected happened: The movie was kind of fun. Sure, in some ways director Zhang Yimou and his pan-Pacific team sometimes stumble into a good time, but it’s mostly a matter of creating an amusing, pulpy adventure story rather than getting caught up in what the producers have riding on their work.

It kicks off from the Western perspective, with a group of mercenaries having rode six months and lost many of their party in an attempt to reach China and acquire their mysterious “black powder” superweapon, but their numbers are cut even further when they’re attacked, and good fortune leaves just William (Matt Damon) and Tovar (Pedro Pascal) alive, with a severed arm that is not human and green blood on on William’s sword. Fortunately, they reach the immense Great Wall of China soon after that, and while General Shao (Zhang Hanyu) leans toward killing the outsiders, Strategist Wang (Andy Lau Tak-wah) thinks that what they’ve seen could be useful in the fight against the monstrous Tao-Tie. Commander Lin Mae (Jing Tian) needs to be convinced, while William and Tovar can’t help but notice that the other Westerner there, Ballard (Willem Dafoe), hasn’t been allowed to leave since he came on a similar quest decades ago. The three of them may be able to escape if they work together, but William is starting to see a nobility in this fight.

These sort of clash-of-culture stories can be difficult balancing acts; one only has to look back a couple of weeks to the twin “Chinese guys have adventures in India” movies that came out for the lunar new year to see how easy it is to stumble into banal platitudes or tacky caricatures. Zhang mostly keeps the “clash” part of it low-key, letting Matt Damon show how impressed William is at the scale of the Wall and skill of the army within it via glances that are more curious than wide-eyed. There’s an elegance to how Zhang and the Western writers generally tend to build the film around celebrating the Chinese values of stability and everybody pulling in the same direction while still finding ways for William’s out-of-the-box thinking to be a major contribution without ever elevating one too far over the other, let alone making on-screen points about it. That William and Lin are going to have to learn to work together and bring their unique talents to bear on the problem is a given; that they’ll just do it without anybody making a speech about it is certainly not.

Full review on EFC.

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