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Home / Mint-lounge / Mint-on-sunday /  Forget Matt Damon, The Great Wall is about China’s quest for global dominance

It is not often that a film so eminently forgettable is treated to such heated debate and intense controversy upon arrival. Yet, when the science-fantasy-period-action-monster-spectacular The Great Wall, starring Matt Damon, released in the US in February, it did so weathering a storm of accusations—chief among them being that Hollywood had yet again whitewashed an ostensibly Asian tale.

Now, a month later, The Great Wall is practically out of theaters worldwide, much sooner than its makers had hoped. The movie’s backers are expected to incur a loss of at least $75 million—half of its production budget. 

“This was the first movie of its type," one executive told The Hollywood Reporter, remarking on the American-Chinese co-production aspect of the movie. “There’s no question but that it’s a failure," said another.

While analysing the colossal misfire behind The Great Wall, one should focus not on the superficial crime of whitewashing, but on an extremely ambitious and disruptive vision of what an “event film" or “international blockbuster" may look like in the future. 

One contender may have come and gone, but more like it are not far off. This vision is here to stay, and it can be traced back to one country’s quest to be a global superpower.

A rocky road to release

Accusations started plaguing The Great Wall months before anyone saw it. Eyebrows were raised as soon as it was announced that Chinese auteur Zhang Yimou, once famous for subversive dramas such as Raise the Red Lantern, would be directing a big-budget, special-effects-laden epic centred upon the Great Wall of China and the purpose it served for ancient Chinese empires. 

The first promotional poster for the film had the tagline “What were they trying to keep out?" over the all-caps title. The answer, to anyone slightly familiar with history, seemed evident in the poster itself: foreigners like Matt Damon.

The raised eyebrows gave way to eyerolls when the first trailer made it seem like this would be an all-too-familiar and all-too-depressing case of a heterosexual white male protagonist stepping in to save the day when a rich and exotic “other" is under threat. 

Examples include—but, sadly, are far from limited to—The Last Samurai, Blood Diamond, The Help and Avatar. The allegations reached such an intensity that both the film’s star and director had to defend it from this fury. 

Their statements evidently didn’t do enough; around the time of the film’s release, the hashtag #ThankYouMattDamon—meant to send up the white saviour phenomenon—went viral and was featured in major news publications.

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Did a film set in 11th century China really need a white protagonist, many wondered. The explanation that quickly took hold in the popular imagination pinned the blame on Damon, as if he entered an otherwise-untarnished universe and ruined the Chinese’s innocent fun-filled romp with his presence. 

This perception not just completely reversed the power dynamics in this series of events, but also failed to understand both the events themselves and their intended audience.

At the beginning of The Great Wall, the vaguely European mercenary played by Damon finally arrives at the titular landmark, where he sees the Song Dynasty’s forces stationed as far a the eye can see. With awe filling his eyes, he exclaims: “I’ve never seen an army like this!" 

Over the course of the film’s 104-minute runtime, there are almost as many shots of Damon’s character gawking at the Chinese troops as there are of the attacking monsters.

The film takes pains to point out how the guns-for-hire nature of Damon’s character is at odds with the Chinese troops’ collective loyalty. The fact that he’s fought under multiple flags—the English, the Spanish, the Vatican, etc.—is something the female lead, a winsome Chinese commander who would die for her order, notes with dismay. 

For a long time, watching American blockbusters that fetishize its military prowess (i.e., almost anything by Michael Bay or Peter Berg) has been an uncomfortable experience for many. A viewing of The Great Wall evokes similar vibes, except the superpower being deified lies on the other side of the Pacific Ocean.

And that’s why the film was made.

Make China Great Again

Before Donald Trump’s “Make America Great Again", the Leave campaign’s “Take Back Control" and Narendra Modi’s endless abbreviations, there was Xi Jinping’s “The Chinese Dream". 

And much like those earlier catchphrases (especially in the case of Modi’s coinages), the Chinese president’s term doesn’t carry an explicit, concrete meaning. Instead, it is a catch-all phrase that signifies many things while remaining vague enough to be held accountable for nothing.

Xi Jinping. Photo: Reuters
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Xi Jinping. Photo: Reuters

Xi, who took power in 2012, promised the Chinese people that under his rule their country would finally regain its glory on the global stage. It’s worth remembering this promise the next time there are developments in China’s new Silk Roads initiative, its brash exercises in the South China Sea, or its opposition to the Western-dominated Bretton Woods institutions. 

This loss of greatness has its roots in the Century of National Humiliation that China believes it suffered after the First Opium War (1839-42). Starting from the Treaty of Nanking in 1842—when the Qing Dynasty ceded Hong Kong island to the British and recognized them as an equal entity—and continuing to another opium war, more punishing treaties, and the Japanese occupation preceding the Second World War, the repeated embarrassment of China on the international stage is ingrained in the national psyche.

Betraying its name, the Century of National Humiliation hasn’t truly ended—or at least, it keeps getting revived whenever convenient. 

Some believe it bottomed out in 1949 when the Communist Party came to power; some believe the return of Hong Kong from the British in 1997 ended it symmetrically; meanwhile, some claim that it will only truly be over when Taiwan is reunited with the mainland.

The Century of National Humiliation works as a never-ending source of motivation, and striving for international validation of China’s power is an intrinsic part of it. 

This is widely acknowledged to have played a part in the country’s bid to host the 2008 Summer Olympics; its (bizarre) attempts to win a Nobel Prize in literature; its expensive plans to become a football powerhouse; and its fervent desire to become a cultural heavyweight. 

The Chinese Communist Party values the export of its language, its customs, its festivals and its art extremely highly. In fact, it regards the slowness of their current export distressing. “The stories of China should be well told, voices of China well spread, and characteristics of China well explained," Xi told his communist cadres in 2014.

The richest man in china

The Great Wall was filmed at the Qingdao Movie Metropolis, a megacity enclosing the world’s largest filmmaking facility. Standing on top of an artificial island off China’s eastern coast, the Metropolis—which will be completed in 2018—is expected to cost more than $8 billion and be around twice the size of its nearest rival in the world, Universal. It will contain 45 soundstages, of which two will be permanently underwater.

Who could even have use for such facilities? “In this age of superhero movies and the revival of Star Wars, there’s demand for really big stages," industry veteran Morgan Hunwicks told The Hollywood Reporter. “Sets that used to have to be built outside can now be brought into a controlled environment, which is a huge advantage." 

Pacific Rim 2, the sequel to Guillermo del Toro’s monster-and-robot mashup, is the next major production to base itself at the Metropolis. That film and The Great Wall are both produced by Legendary Pictures, which was recently bought by the Dalian Wanda Group, the company behind the Metropolis. 

The Wanda Group was founded by Wang Jianlin, who is a member of the Communist Party and a delegate to the National People’s Congress. With a net worth exceeding $30 billion, Wang is the richest man in Asia

Wang Jianlin. Photo: AFP
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Wang Jianlin. Photo: AFP

After making his fortune in real estate, Wang moved on to the media industry. He is behind the Wanda multiplexes, which are inescapable if you’re in China. In 2012, he bought AMC Entertainment and took over their theatres.

Today, Wang, described in a profile in The Economist as “a man of Napoleonic ambition", owns more cinema screens than anyone else on the planet. Wang also purchased a 20% stake in Atletico Madrid, and his Wanda Group wanted to acquire Dick Clark Productions, with an eye on the broadcast rights to the Golden Globes—among other things. 

When announcing the launch of his Qingdao Metropolis, he flew over stars like Nicole Kidman, Kate Beckinsale and Leonardo DiCaprio to smile on the red carpet.

This groundbreaking ceremony, which took place in 2013, is an illuminating precursor to understand where The Great Wall came from and what it will lead to. 

For Wang and Wanda Group, dominating the global entertainment marketplace is the end-goal. Not only does he want to own the biggest share of the pie—be it in North America or in China—but he also wants to build up Chinese entertainment brands to rival those in Hollywood.

Wang is under no illusions regarding what the pursuit of that goal will entail. “Optimistically, it will be at least 10 years before we can make films in English that are global," he said in another profile of him, this one in The Hollywood Reporter. Until then, it makes commercial sense for him to ride on the backs of international celebrities, be it DiCaprio for waving at shutterbugs or Damon for fighting monsters.

The initial reaction in the press and social media is understandable. The Chinese propaganda in the finished film would not have come across easily inside a two-minute trailer. What seemed more likely was a craven production made to appease shareholders even if that meant trampling over cultural authenticity. 

Hollywood as an industry, even in the 21st century, is not above casting Benedict Cumberbatch to play someone named Khan (in Star Trek Into Darkness) or Scarlett Johannsson to embody the originally Asian lead in the adaptation of Ghost in the Shell, a Japanese animated film based on a manga of the same name. 

In a popular discourse still reeling from the #OscarsSoWhite controversy, Damon’s face plastered atop a film set in China hit all the wrong notes.

However, make no mistake, in a project like The Great Wall, it’s the white male lead who is expendable and replaceable—not the people behind the scenes making all the decisions of import. 

“Matt Damon is not playing a role that was originally conceived for a Chinese actor," director Zhang Yimou told Entertainment Weekly. If Damon were unavailable—say, filming another Bourne sequel—Wang and the Wanda Group would have arranged for another box-office draw of his calibre to fill in. 

For the type of films they hope to make and the kind of message China wants to broadcast to both the world and, especially, its domestic audience, what’s essential is not just that a face like Matt Damon’s appear on the poster but also that a person like Matt Damon recognize the might of Chinese forces and aid them in their mission to bring peace to the world.

The near future

The US is the world’s biggest box-office market today, but it will be overtaken by China in a few years. Already, major blockbusters such as Fast and Furious 7 or Transformers: Age of Extinction are grossing more in China than they are in the States. 

More importantly, for films such as the first Pacific Rim (budget: $190 million), their earnings in China can make the difference between incurring a loss and recouping the original investment.

China is notoriously restrictive in the foreign productions it grants theatrical release. Under its import quotas, only 34 titles are allowed distribution every year. The companies behind these chosen few earn merely 25% of ticket revenues—still substantial in a market where a successful film can gross more than $300 million. 

However, to sidestep the quota, companies can choose to make their title a Chinese co-production. The requirements are onerous—Chinese production companies are infamous for intruding upon the script—and have led some previous aspirants (Disney’s Iron Man 3) to abandon the attempt midway.

But being branded a co-production also raises the share of the foreign partner’s earnings to 43%. And international titles that utilize the Qingdao Metropolis can qualify for a 40% production rebate from the city’s municipal corporation. So it is safe to bet that the failure of The Great Wall notwithstanding, Hollywood and its celebrities will be back in China for more.

When you look at The Great Wall, you can notice the beginnings of an Asian conglomerate’s revolutionary vision. You can see a business model that an American industry has desperately turned to in the face of declining theatrical attendance and growing international power. 

You can observe how a country reaches out when it’s eager for the cultural clout and soft power that it believes should accompany its economic strength. It’s a sprawling tale of an exotic “other" that touches upon sky-high ambition, centuries of history and a drastic shift in global power structures.

Yet, the media discussion has focused upon one white male who’s a rather peripheral element in the bigger picture. If only there were a term for that.

Laya Maheshwari is a journalist who has reported on cinema and propaganda from countries such as North Korea, China, Russia and Turkey. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, The Guardian and Al Jazeera—among other publications.

Comments are welcome at feedback@livemint.com

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