THE GREAT WALL: The verdict, pros, cons, and speaking with director Zhang Yimou

By Erin Chew of

If you have ever visited The Great Wall Of China, and did the trek along one of the many paths you would be able to sense the history, its ambiance, its hidden meaning and significance. So you would expect a movie with this name sake to live up to certain expectations. The movie, THE GREAT WALL, did in some ways live up to these expectations in that it had amazing visual effects, and really did a great job in making the actual “Wall” the focal point of the movie. This point was expressed by celebrated Chinese film director Zhang Yimou at the official press junket, that in making the movie he wanted to preserve the meaning of the wall. In addition to this, the movie had a great balance of action and dialogue and there was not really any dull/boring moments with a number of interesting positive themes popping up despite the controversy surrounding the film, which I will discuss later in this piece.


Essentially the movie was about humans versus dragon like monsters in a bid to protect the fictional Song Dynasty Kingdom from being invaded, killed and eaten. The monsters are called the Tao Tei, and they are dragon like monsters which live in a cursed mountain and are awakened every 60 years to remind the people that ‘greed’ is a deadly curse.


Personally, I went into the pre-screening of this film feeling uncomfortable about Matt Damon yielding his whiteness in ancient China. After watching it, I thought the movie for the most part was excellent in terms of the visual effects and how the actual Great Wall was pinned as the focal theme. For a fictional tale of monsters and curses, I thought it was quite good, and Zhang Yimou was extremely clever in how he was able to merge the Eastern and Western cultures in a united front to fight a deadly non human enemy. The other positives which I enjoyed about the film was how Zhang Yimou managed to balance dialogue with action and didn’t waste time with the start of the movie, which went straight to the action.

The colours of all the warriors were visually appeasing. I mean different corps wore different colours of uniform. For example, the all female Crane Corps wore blue, whilst the male generals wore red and other colours (became duller) as it progressed down the ranks). In addition, I enjoyed and applaud Zhang Yimou for making a female warrior as the primary hero of the movie ( I will elaborate on this on a later section in this piece). Jing Tian who played Lin Mae, leader of the Crane Corps and later becoming the chief general of the Nameless Order was a strong, no bullshit woman who commanded the full respect of all the “alpha” male generals and soldiers. The Crane Corps was also the most elite of the Order and were fighting always on the front line, which is generally uncommon in many similar type Asian/Chinese movies.

However, I felt the movie was slightly simplistic in how it was structured, meaning that despite the good balance between the action and dialogue, the entire movie didn’t really go into the backstory of the Nameless Order and how it was created. There wasn’t really any character and story progression as it went straight to the battle with the Tao Tei. If you are like myself and have grown up watching Chinese/Asian period movies, you would know that the best ones have a lot more meat in discussing the backstory as well as showing how each of the primary characters develop and how they became who they are. I am sure most of us watch Chinese/Asian period style movies for its complexities and its story development without being stingy on the action. In saying all this, I felt THE GREAT WALL lacked a deeper meaning, but I guess that was not its actual intentions, considering it was made to predominantly appeal  a “western audience”.

As director Zhang Yimou stated at the press junket:

The hardest part is to find the perfect point of how both cultures (east and west) is able to understand the story. Eastern cultures may like more of a complicated story whilst the Western cultures generally prefer more direct story lines.

The other point which I will elaborate more in the next part of this piece (but I will highlight it briefly here) is that where the movie was not exactly “whitewashing”, it held strong elements of “white knighting”, in that the character of Damon (William Garin) was the secondary hero which enabled Tian (Lin Mae) to eventually kill the Queen Tao Tei and destroy the curse.


Jing Tian who played Lin Mae, led the feisty, independent, skilled and strong all female warriors of the Nameless Order known as the Crane Corps. They were fearless and only held by ropes pulled by other male warriors, jumped off the wall like pro bungee jumpers slicing and stabbing the Tao Tei as they ran towards the wall in a bloody onslaught attack. The women warriors were the front line fighters and portrayed  both stealth and strength at the same. Lin Mae was forceful and commanded absolute respect and homage by the entire Order. Even when her predecessor General Shao was alive, he depended on her thought and fearlessness and she was essentially his number 2. When he was killed he passed the leadership to Lin Mae, who led the elite warriors in defending The Great Wall and saved the entire kingdom, by breaking this ancient curse. This I felt was the strength of the movie, priding in the fact that women are equals to men, and can fight just as well and just as strong as male warriors. There was essentially no gender bias in the film, and I think this is a step in the right direction considering Asia for the most part still holds traditional and patriarchal views on how women should behave and be like. No women in the film was subservient and weak, and they performed roles which generally are performed by men. In a direct contrast though to what I just stated about stereotypes of women, Asian women throughout history have always had a strong resilience having to fight the traditional and patriarchal society and if you analyse you would see how Queen Dowagers of the Asian Imperial Kingdoms in essence commanded the palace and the decisions of empire expansion. The tale of Mulan is another great example of this contrast, and this was also highlighted by Zhang Yimou:

The first influence of the entire movie is a female general. In the East, we love having a female generals, for example Mulan, despite how society viewed the role of women and at that time in western culture had no heroes like that. 


As I stated above, I do not agree with the assertion that THE GREAT WALL was a “whitewashed” movie. I do however, think it was “white knighting”, meaning that Matt Damon (William Garin) was the secondary hero who enabled the primary hero Jing Tian (Lin Mae) to kill the Queen Tao Tei and finally ending this old age curse. The third most important character Andy Lau who played strategist Wang was influential for most of the movie and was the brains of the Nameless Order. And where Lau’s character had as much airtime as Damon’s character, he didn’t survive and succumbed to the wrath of the Tao Tei in an act of sacrifice for Damon’s character to help Tian’s character to save the day.

I guess in most Asian/Chinese movies it is common for the primary heroes to sacrifice their lives and die for the bigger cause – as it is seen as honorable and committed. But for a blockbuster film which is meant to appease both Eastern and Western audience, I wish that the primary male hero was Asian/Chinese and not white European. Out of the entire cohort of elite warriors of the Nameless Order, Damon’s character was made to look like the most skillful archer and the most fearless fighter of the all the male generals. In addition, even though Tian’s character Lin Mae and Damon’s character William Garin didn’t blossom into a romance as such, there were indications that they were both attracted to each other and somehow they both agreed that they were the “same” person (in terms of how they grew up and their life experiences – hardship, abandonment etc), and this is where my insinuation of the “white knight” theme comes about. In the press junket, Zhang Yimou did address the concerns of “whitewashing”, and said this:

I am used to criticisms like this, and before the movie even came out, people had their own expectations. I think due to the growth of the information age, people like to guess and assume. As an artist you need to let the film speak for itself. When this “whitewashing” controversy came out, it was unfair on Matt Damon and it was upsetting as his intentions were mistaken and I had to defend Matt. Let the movie speak for itself. Matt has respect for all Chinese people and Chinese culture.

I get that. I understand that the movie not only had to appease Asian audiences, but it was pinned as a Western blockbuster, and pushing the name of Matt Damon is because he is a big name. However, I felt this was not necessarily required and at some point we need to start pushing Asian actors as huge blockbuster successes. I mean, Andy Lau is household name, and he himself could have held the movie to its blockbuster glory. I also think that there is a different understanding of what “whitewashing” and “white knighting” means in Asia and in the West. Many Asians who live and/or were raised in Asia will not have a deep understanding of the intersectionality of Western race relations and how dominant white supremacy is and the underlying issues this presents.


I will keep this brief, as I think this piece is already quite long and comprehensive. I felt honored and privileged to be able to meet celebrated Chinese director Zhang Yimou, and as a film it encapsulates all the major traits which make up an action-adventure film. I don’t want to lend too much of a “good movie/bad movie” slant to my piece because I would prefer all of you to make up your own judgments and opinions. For me, visually it was an amazing film and as I stated a number of times already there was a great balance of action and dialogue, if you strip away all the other underlying and indirect issues which I have already discussed at length. Anyways, I will leave it here and end with the words of Zhang Yimou in how he sees the growth of Asian actors and movies making it big on the global stage:

We all need to grow and understand of more cultures and people all over the world. The idea of the movie’s premise is to listen to other voices. The more we understand different cultures, the more we will all know of each other better. 

In total, all the cast and crew represented over 30 countries and we had around 100 translators. Film making is a universal language and communication is key to this and was the biggest challenge in making THE GREAT WALL. 

Please let us know what you all think.


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