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The Great Wall

Epic Ambition vs Epic Criticism

China’s first domestic blockbuster co-produced with Hollywood triggered controversies both in the Us and at home

By NewsChina Updated Apr.1

In the three weeks since its launch, the much-anticipated The Great Wall, the first blockbuster co-produced by Hollywood and the Chinese film industry, took over a billion yuan (US$144 million) at the box office in China, a symbolic threshold of success for any blockbuster in the world’s second largest movie market. However, given the ambition of the project, the film’s box office takings can only be described as modest. 

With an estimated budget of US$150 million, The Great Wall is the first major film co-produced by Le Vision Pictures, China Film Group , Universal Pictures and Legendary, the Hollywood studio bought in early 2016 by Wanda Group founder Wang Jianlin, China’s richest man, for US$3.5 billion. The project is considered not only a test for the company, but for the Chinese film industry as a whole, as it tries to expand its influence overseas and acquire the capability to produce films that become global hits. 

With the rapid expansion of the Chinese film market in recent years, the country’s cinema takings grew 17-fold within a decade, from 2.6 billion yuan (US$374 million) in 2006 to 45.7 billion yuan (US$7.7bn) in 2016. However, no matter how successful are they on the home market, Chinese films have typically floundered internationally. For example, Stephen Chow’s 2016 The Mermaid, the highest-grossing Chinese film of all time with a box office of 3.4 billion yuan (US$488 million), only earned US$25 million outside China. 

By investing in Hollywood, China’s film makers are trying to produce films that can appeal to both Chinese and Western audiences and bridge the world’s two largest film markets. The Great Wall is a major test for this strategy. 

Set on the Great Wall in ancient China, the country’s best-known cultural landmark, the film stars Hollywood A-lister Matt Damon, who plays a European mercenary who helps an army of Chinese soldiers to defend humanity against a horde of mythical monsters. 

At first glance, the film appears to have every element needed for success. Besides a generous budget, the cast includes several Hollywood celebrities. Alongside Matt Damon there is Willem Dafoe and Pedro Pascal, as well as a half dozen top-tier stars from the Greater China region including Andy Lau, Lu Han and Zhang Hanyu. Its director is Zhang Yimou, whose earlier works Red Sorghum (1987), To Live (1994) and Hero (2002), won him a Berlinale Golden Bear, Cannes Grand Jury Prize and Oscar nomination respectively. Although his more recent works appear to be less inspiring, his success in directing the 2008 Beijing Olympics opening ceremony has made him one of the most renowned film directors in China. 

Critical Take 

Backing it with a massive marketing campaign, Legendary has high hopes for the film, projecting a box office of US$200 million in China alone. But unfortunately, the film has triggered controversy from the outset. 

Shortly after Legendary released its first trailer in July 2016, Damon’s leading role was criticized as another case of “whitewashing,” where white actors are chosen for roles that should have gone to actors of other ethnicities.

 In a widely-shared tweet, Constance Wu, an Asian American actress criticized the movie for “perpetuating the racist myth that [only a] white man can save the world.” 

In response, Damon defended his role, arguing that his character was always intended to be a European, while emphasizing that the casting was intended to merge the star power of both China and Hollywood. 

The argument appears to be that the arrangement was made based on a market assessment rather than by racial or ethnic considerations. Matt Damon has been popular in China. Both the Bourne series and The Martian were hits in China, with the latter taking 587 million yuan (US$84.5 million). Casting Damon as the lead, the film had the potential to be a success in both markets. 

In China, the results of the strategy appear mixed. On one hand, although falling short of the $200 million target, box office sales of US$144 million can hardly be said to be a failure. But on the other hand, the fact that the film has received poor ratings on China’s major movie review websites spells trouble, as the film will not be released in theaters in the US until February 7, 2017. 

On Douban.com, China’s leading movie review site, The Great Wall received a score of 4.9 out of 10 based on the ratings of over 170,000 viewers, as of early January 2017. 

In promoting the film prior to its release in December 2016, Zhang Yimou told Chinese media that a major focus of his work is to “incorporate Eastern and Western culture.” 

“It is not enough to simply use exotic Chinese elements to attract Western audiences,” said Zhang, “That’s why we have put a lot of effort into polishing the entire story.” Unfortunately, this is exactly where the film has disappointed Chinese moviegoers, as many complained about the film’s thin plot and the superficiality of the Chinese elements.

 Much of the criticism echoes the earlier “whitewashing” accusation the film received in the US. For many Chinese moviegoers, it is awkward and implausible to see a European mercenary becoming a hero amid all the Chinese soldiers and generals. “When it eventually takes a foreign archer to save the day, it makes a joke of all the Chinese regiments so exquisitely displayed earlier in the film,” said one reviewer on Douban. 

Another critique published by Yingshikoubei, a major movie review blog that has over 20 million followers, went further to claim that by shortchanging the Chinese cast, the film has “brought shame” to the entire Chinese film industry. 

Arguing that the film, funded by a Chinese company and directed by Zhang Yimou, should promote Chinese characters, the critic said it is an embarrassment to see fighters cast by Chinese stars either being killed off early such as the General of the Bear Regiment of the Chinese army, played by Zhang Hanyu, or lacking character, such as the Chinese army strategist played by Andy Lau, compared to the Western cast. 

“With a Western hero saving the world, combined with an [Eastern] beauty and supporting comrades, everything in the film is Western except a Chinese shell on the outside,” reads the article, “It is equivalent to an ‘ancient version of 007’.”  

An audience watches The Great Wall in Taiyuan, Shanxi Province, December 15, 2016 

Quality Concerns 
Among this year’s home-made blockbusters, The Great Wall was not the only one to receive poor ratings. Jackie Chan’s new action comedy Railroad Tigers and Wong Kar-wai’s romantic comedy See You Tomorrow, were rated of 5.0 and 3.9. 

While low ratings have been common on China’s movie review websites for both foreign and domestic films, the poor ratings received by major Chinese blockbusters during a major holiday period have triggered debate. 

On December 27, in a guest op-ed published on its mobile version, the People’s Daily criticized the negative comments about The Great Wall and two other Chinese films posted on Douban and maoyan.com, another ticketing and review platform, as being “illintended and irresponsible.” 

Claiming that many of the poor ratings showed up on Douban even before the premiere of The Great Wall had finished, the piece said some critics and “opinion leaders” focus more on “grabbing eyeballs” for themselves than providing serious criticism, which it said would jeopardize the ecosystem of the Chinese film industry. “Influenced by the low ratings, audiences may feel disappointed at domestic films… Some will even refuse to watch them,” said the article. 

The piece sparked a fiery reaction from the film critic community, with many arguing that the blame was misdirected, and should be at the films themselves, rather than reviewers and websites. Yang Bo, founder of Douban.com, also rejected the suggestion that Douban can be subject to hacking and argued that given the website’s 100 million users have an equal say in rating a film ensures the objectivity of its ratings. He also said that the website can detect and delete any organized attempt to swing the rating of a movie. 

In the meantime, many netizens flocked to Douban, leaving poor ratings for The Great Wall in a gesture of defiance and protest, causing the film’s rating to fall farther, from 5.5 to 4.9 within a few days.

 Since the People’ Daily is the official newspaper of the ruling Communist Party, the strong response from critics and moviegoers reflected widespread concern that authorities will expand censorship over the film industry to cover critics of the films in order to boost the Chinese film industry. The fear was further compounded as it was reported that the State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television (SAPPRFT) has summoned leaders of Douban and Maoyan to discuss the low ratings of domestic movies on their websites.

 In response to the widespread concerns, the People’s Daily reacted the very next day, December 28, by releasing its own commentary on the same mobile platform, echoing the same calls for openness of criticism. Zhang Hongsen, the SAPPRFT chief, also denied that it has summoned leaders from Douban and Maoyan. Calling for movie makers to be open to criticism and reviewers to “adhere to facts,” Zhang called for “solidarity” between the film industry and the film critic community.

Turning Point? 

To a large extent, the debate over online reviews may have reflected anxiety over the stalling Chinese film industry. In 2016, box office sales grew by just three percent, the first year of single-digit growth in recent decades. By comparison, the market surged by 49 percent in 2015. There are concerns that the downward trend may continue into 2017, as ticket sales over the three-day New Year’s holiday were down 22 percent on the previous. 

But for some critics, the slowdown of the film market is not necessarily a bad thing for China’s film industry. In recent years, critics have complained that movie makers can afford to totally ignore the critics given the rapid expansion of China’s film market. By focusing on marketing techniques and relying on star power, movie makers can make easy money as a rising tide lifts all boats. 

The result is a decline of the overall quality of Chinese films. Few Chinese films have had any major impact internationally in recent years, despite surging ticket sales at home. It is estimated that in the period between 2012 and 2016 when box office takings almost tripled, average ratings of domestic movies on douban.com declined from the already low level of 5.1 to 4.4. 

According to Yang Shiyang, a well-known film critic, 2016 marks the end of an era, as “bad movies can no longer shamelessly rip off China’s moviegoers.” In a widely-shared commentary regarding the controversy surrounding The Great Wall, Yang argued that the stalling of China’s film market stems from the fact that China’s moviegoers’ enthusiasm for the cinema has been exhausted by years of disappointment. As the audience matures, Yang hoped that it would foster a healthier film industry in China. 

But so far, it remains unclear how the controversy surrounding The Great Wall will impact its performance in the US. Regardless of whether the film can be a global hit economically, the China film industry has a long way to go to match Hollywood’s cultural prowess.