As promotional stills and trailers were released for the American-Chinese co-production The Great Wall, much controversy arose from the film’s alleged whitewashing of a Chinese story. A historical fiction action film, The Great Wall tells the story of a group of international warriors, led by the American actor Matt Damon, who band together to fight monsters on the Great Wall of China. The most circulated takedown of the movie on the web comes from the American actress Constance Wu, who wrote, “We have to stop perpetuating the racist myth that [only a] white man can save the world.” Wu’s criticism is based on her rejection of the “white savior” motif common in film and literature, in which a white character rescues non-white characters from some form of hardship. The motif is explicitly Orientalist, given both its implication that white culture holds the solution to the problems of non-white characters and its designation of non-white characters as an unfamiliar Other in their own space.
The Last Samurai, starring Tom Cruise, is often referenced as exemplary of the trope, and it is especially relevant in this instance, given The Great Wall’s similar setting in a pre-modern Asian country. Wu has not claimed, as some have mistakenly said she has, that Damon’s central role in The Great Wall is an instance of whitewashing, as Damon’s character is not based on a historical figure, nor was the character originally written as a person of color and then revised to suit Damon. Some critics like Flavorwire’s Jason Bailey have argued that the film is actually a subversion of the white savior trope, where Damon first appears to embody the role and then is revealed to be the one who must learn from the Chinese, while others like Vulture’s E. Alex Jung disagree. Ultimately, though, the contention here is not solely concerned with whitewashing or the “white savior” trope, both of which are still far too common—but with the ownership of stories. To tell a story set not only in China, but on one of China’s great national symbols, and invoke Orientalist tropes while refocusing the plot away from Chinese characters, is troubling, to say the least.
While some coverage of the film in the US has focused on the debate of whether the film is Orientalist or not, the main target of criticism has been Matt Damon’s involvement in the film. Many headlines have referred to the film as “Matt Damon’s Great Wall Movie,” and the majority of articles lead with a still of Damon. With his face on the poster, and as the first-billed actor, Damon is an easy target for criticism leveled at the film. What this neglects, however, is the career of the man behind the camera, arguably the most famous mainland Chinese director of all time: Zhang Yimou. Even without prescribing to the auteur theory of total directorial authorship of a film, at least some responsibility for the film’s troubling portrayal of China lies with Zhang, and some of the blame for producing a film that forgoes the opportunity to create a Chinese epic with Chinese faces is Zhang’s. When this latest film of Zhang’s is viewed within the context of his previous work and the ideologies that they advance, The Great Wall seems less of an aberration or an American product foisted upon Zhang to direct, but of a piece with the narrative of his career.
Zhang Yimou began his career as a cinematographer, studying the practice at the Beijing Film Academy in the late 1970s. He became a part of the Fifth Generation of Chinese filmmakers, along with Chen Kaige and Tian Zhuangzhuang. Famous for their experimental mood pieces, the Fifth Generation would come to define Chinese filmmaking post-Cultural Revolution, especially for Western critics and art-house audiences. But the praise lavished upon the Fifth Generation was countered by criticism, especially as this new wave of Chinese film entered its second decade of relevance. As Zhang Yimou emerged as the primary star of this group of directors (with some competition from Chen Kaige), the style and content of his films would soon ossify into a formula, which many other Chinese directors then began to take cues from.
This formula, of pre-1949 period settings, of peasants and bandits and concubines, of rural locales untouched by time, presented a mythic China of sorts. It shied away from the social realism that had characterized Chinese cinema up to that point, eschewing direct engagement with contemporary China and its issues. And in the eyes of some scholars, Zhang’s films self-Orientalize by creating this romantic, allegorical China. In her article “The Zhang Yimou Model,” Tonglin Lu, using Zhang’s film Raise the Red Lantern as an example, explores the symbolic connotations of the visuals in Zhang’s films. She concludes that they are ultimately Orientalist, catering to a Western audience with little knowledge of China. Many of the “traditions” seen in Zhang’s films are inventions of the director, like the titular raising of lanterns to indicate which wife in a compound has the favor of the master of the house that night. With these inventions, Zhang self-consciously creates an imaginary and unrecognizable China to both Westerners who were never familiar with Chinese traditions and Chinese who have never encountered these fictional ones.
Zhang’s fabricated and embellished China is meant to be distant from the China of reality and more like the China of the Western imagination—the unchanging China, an amalgamation of traditional Chinese symbols and tropes, pieced together through distorted glimpses of the culture through a Western lens. As Lu argues, Zhang preserves the hierarchy perpetuated by Orientalism of an advanced West and a backward and mysterious China by creating “fantasized difference,” which has lost relevance as China assimilates to the global capitalist model and becomes less of an Other. Contemporary China, with its modern urban centers and population familiar with most aspects of Western culture, no longer looks as different from the West as it once did. But Zhang Yimou’s films return the Western viewer to a time when China and the West were very different, and includes some elements of his own creation to accentuate that difference.
The Great Wall, then, is a continuation of the Orientalism that is characteristic of Zhang’s previous work, with the added element of the white savior myth, resurrecting the trope from his previous film The Flowers of War. It must be noted here that Zhang himself did not write the screenplay for The Great Wall, but Zhang has not written the screenplays for any of his films, and it is unlikely that a director of his stature would be willing to direct a script that he fundamentally did not believe in. The film is set in the Song Dynasty, centuries removed from the present day, and the action concerns attacks on the Great Wall by alien monsters. Zhang is again telling the story of a fantastical China bearing little resemblance to its modern incarnation. China, in Zhang’s portrayal to Western audiences, can still be the land of dragons and emperors, unknowable and unrelatable.
Artistically, there is no reason that Matt Damon’s character in The Great Wall could not have been played by a Chinese actor. The plot would change in some ways, but there is nothing inherent in the role of a strong, intelligent warrior who conquers monsters on the Great Wall that requires it to be played by a white man. Instead, The Great Wall is another entry in the film canon that singles out Westerners for their heroism and relegates China to a legendary, mysterious backdrop. While Zhang has been complicit in this practice for decades, he has not, until recently, prioritized white characters in his films. He said in a recent interview that, “The way the market is right now, we can’t make an internationally successful film on our own. If we didn’t have Matt Damon, if we didn’t speak English in the film, then it would just be a purely Chinese film.” But Zhang is one of the people with the most power to change the situation as one of the few internationally lauded Chinese directors, who has proven both his artistic bona fides as well as his commercial viability. By creating films that cater to the Western art film market that finances him, he has reinforced Orientalist Western perspectives of China at a time when China is shedding its image in the West as an Other. The Great Wall is a missed opportunity to tell a Chinese story about Chinese people and demonstrates Zhang’s failure to address these issues. One expects Hollywood to dismiss the importance of promoting Chinese actors and Chinese stories, but it is another matter entirely when a Chinese director does it himself.
Amanda Walencewicz is a senior at Tufts University. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org