Since the first trailer for ‘The Great Wall’ debuted, it has been surrounded by controversy. Though many are excited about the first English-language film from ‘House of Flying Daggers’ and ‘Hero’ director Zhang Yimou, they’re equally disappointed that Matt Damon is starring in a story that is meant to delve into the secret ancient Chinese history behind the construction of the Great Wall of China. Now, the filmmaker has finally responded to the contention surrounding the upcoming film from Universal and Legendary Pictures.
Following criticisms from many Asians and Asian-Americans on the casting of his latest film, Yimou has issued an official statement to Entertainment Weekly regarding the negative reaction to Damon’s involvement in ‘The Great Wall’:
“In many ways ‘The Great Wall’ is the opposite of what is being suggested. For the first time, a film deeply rooted in Chinese culture, with one of the largest Chinese casts ever assembled, is being made at tent pole scale for a world audience. I believe that is a trend that should be embraced by our industry. Our film is not about the construction of the Great Wall. Matt Damon is not playing a role that was originally conceived for a Chinese actor. The arrival of his character in our story is an important plot point. There are five major heroes in our story and he is one of them — the other four are all Chinese. The collective struggle and sacrifice of these heroes are the emotional heart of our film. As the director of over 20 Chinese language films and the Beijing Olympics, I have not and will not cast a film in a way that was untrue to my artistic vision. I hope when everyone sees the film and is armed with the facts they will agree.”
It’s very important to note that it sounds like Yimou thinks that it is being suggested that his new movie is being accused of whitewashing his leading role. I don’t think that’s the case. Unlike ‘Ghost In The Shell’ or ‘Doctor Strange’, the filmmaker says that Damon’s character was not originally conceived as Asian. But in this massive Chinese ensemble, a white guy is being placed front and center as the hero. Damon’s face is the only one that appears on the poster. He’s the only one talking in the trailer. His name gets top billing and is the only cast members’ name to appear prominently in the trailer. No, this isn’t really whitewashing, but it is perpetuating the white savior narrative that seems to be present in a good chunk of the movies coming out of Hollywood such as ‘Avatar’, ‘Elysium’, ‘The Last Samurai’, and many more. The preview presents Damon as the hero coming in to save the Chinese people from whatever threat caused them to build the wonder of the world. And though the director mentions four other major heroes in his film that are Chinese, why aren’t they featured alongside Damon in the trailer or the poster if their collective struggle and sacrifice are the emotional heart of the film? Just because some people are mislabeling the problem doesn’t mean that there isn’t one.
However, Yimou’s statement does make one good point: We haven’t seen the movie yet. We don’t know exactly how Damon’s character comes into play or if he actually is the main hero. This definitely happens a lot these days. Obviously, we can’t properly judge a film that we haven’t seen, but people do it all the time. Fans have a knee-jerk reaction based on what they think is going to happen. Although in this case, we can still criticize its advertising campaign that puts Matt Damon in the spotlight over his Chinese co-stars that supposedly have equal amounts of importance to his character despite not having seen the film. Clearly, the marketing campaign is trying to take advantage of the international movie star in the cast, but in doing so, it falls into the tired trope that the audience is clearly very tired of seeing.
As I mentioned in my last article about this movie, Angry Asian Man put it best when he said, “Hollywood can set a movie anywhere in the world, in any era of history, and always find a way to star a white guy.” Why is that? Why can’t we have people of color in starring roles? Our media should be reflecting the incredibly diverse world around us. White men aren’t the only heroes in our world, so let’s have our films and television start reflecting that. We (meaning the entertainment industry as a whole) can do much, much better because representation matters.
‘The Great Wall’ starring Matt Damon, Jing Tian, Pedro Pascal, Willem Dafoe, Mackenzie Foy, and Andy Lau hits theaters on February 17, 2017.