Great walls of fire

The West Australian
Matt Damon as William Garin in a scene from The Great Wall.
Camera IconMatt Damon as William Garin in a scene from The Great Wall. Credit: AP

FILM

The Great Wall

Matt Damon, Tian Jing

DIRECTOR ZHANG YIMOU

REVIEW RAY CHAN

The Great Wall is an encouraging start to what seems to be a new era of Chinese-Hollywood epics, with the US movie house long keen to court China’s massive viewing market.

Steered by renowned Chinese director Zhang Yimou and backed by Chinese-owned Hollywood studio Legendary, it features a cast that includes many Chinese A-listers as well as Matt Damon, recruited to bring some pedigree to the project, and is so far the most expensive movie ever made in China.

It seems somehow fitting that, given the film’s genesis, that the story centres on China’s relationship with foreigners. Western mercenaries William Garin (Damon) and Pero Tovar (Pedro Pascal) unwittingly stumble upon the huge man-made structure after fleeing a group of adversarial tribesmen, only to be greeted by an enormous army flanked along the wall.

The Chinese troops, called the Nameless Order, are quickly suspicious of the strangers, but their lives are spared after the army’s chief scientist spots a severed green-skinned arm among Garin’s paraphernalia, procured after a deadly battle the night before which claimed the lives of three of Garin’s teammates.

It turns out the appendage belongs to a Tao Tei, a flesh-eating monster whose herd scales the Great Wall every 60 years to feed.

Encouraged by the possibility that Garin bears the key to defeating the Tao Tei, the Chinese gradually welcome him into the fold, a concession aided by Garin’s own impressive skills at archery. But all is not as it seems, for Garin’s and Tovar’s original mission had been to infiltrate the Chinese lands to steal the precious gunpowder found there.

The cultural differences are stark. The foreigners provide occasional comic relief as they fight among themselves and plot their escape with the magic black powder, while the Chinese are nothing but stoic, humourless and disciplined and dedicated to their cause.

As it turns out, Garin and friend have appeared just as the Tao Tei launch their 60-year assault. The duo have no option but to help out the army in fighting the monsters, and after successfully warding off the attacks, are treated even more like heroes.

But in doing so, Garin discovers the good within his own self. Humbled by the culture of these new peoples, he develops a kinship with them and, as the Commander Lin (Jing Tian) explains, a special “trust”.

The plot is straightforward with nary a twist and turn. A fledgling romance between Garin and Li is hinted at, but never expanded upon. This is, after all, a “respectful” movie aimed at Chinese audiences, to which it certainly plays up, with grandiose depictions of Chinese militaria, including catapulting fireballs, hula-hooped bungee-jumping female warriors, giant hot air balloons and enormous scythes which emerge from the wall.

Zhang’s artistic touch is clearly on display in his long panoramic sweeps and artful use of colour to depict this mix of historic and futuristic inventions. The visual spectacle undoubtedly helps carry much of the film, the highlight being a beautiful shot of traditional sky lanterns at one character’s funeral.

As the Chinese eventually discover, the Tao Teis’ initial retreat was merely a ruse, and they return for a climactic battle in which Garin plays his part, while his partner instead chooses to flee with some of the gunpowder heisted from the inner chambers.

The Great Wall is basically a no-nonsense special effects extravaganza with plenty of adventure. But does that necessarily lower its value? A movie does not need to be deep and meaningful for it to be enjoyable.

On a closing note, viewers could be forgiven for feeling the movie’s name must be a metaphor of some kind. Could the moral of the story be a pointed observation on the influence of foreign values on Chinese society? Is it about East and West working together for the general good, with collectivism winning out over individualism? Or, perhaps, it’s simply a tribute to the way China and Hollywood have overcome obstacles to collaborate on the movie.

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