I had to laugh a little when I saw the trailer for The Great Wall last weekend. They put Matt Damon in an otherwise mostly Chinese movie about the origins of The Great Wall? Oh, wow, the internet is going to love that. Hear, hear for white savior narratives!

Here’s the trailer:

According to The Hollywood Reporter, The Great Wall is a $160m-budgeted co-production and the biggest movie collaboration between the U.S. and China ever. It will come out in China in December, and two months later Universal will drop it in the US and Canada. In addition to Matt Damon, the cast also includes Willem Defoe, Pablo Pascal and a whole slew of notable Asian stars like Andy Lau, Lu Han, Eddie Peng and Jing Tian. It’s being described as a 3D fantasy adventure-monster period action film dramatizing the mysteries surrounding the origins of the Great Wall of China during the Northern Song Dynasty, and their version of the story involves fending off nasty monsters.

The incongruous presence of Matt Damon combined with the signature visual tics of legendary Chinese filmmaker Zhang Yimou (House of Flying Daggers) gives this the feel of a movie-length version of one of those super weird Japanese TV commercials starring American celebrities clearly moonlighting in a completely different culture in exchange for a big paycheck. However, with China’s ongoing efforts to take over the entertainment world we’re probably going to see far more cinematic experiments like this in the years to come.

Fresh Off the Boat‘s Constance Wu predictably weighed in with a no-nonsense take on the issue, and is simply done with any financially-based explanations for why stories about people of color must be packaged with white movie stars to guard against financial risk:

Here’s the thing, though: The Great Wall isn’t simply more of the same old whitewashing. This isn’t 47 Ronin or The Last Samurai again. Those were American movies written, directed and produced by white people and starring a seemingly white male star (to be fair to 47 Ronin, Keanu Reeves is half-Hawaiian with Chinese ancestry). The Great Wall, on the other hand, has a Chinese director, Chinese film crew, was filmed in China and was backed largely by Chinese money. A couple of the stars might be white and the same goes for the screenwriters, but this is really a major Chinese film which managed to secure global distribution from an American studio.

To make The Great Wall, the Chinese film companies Le Vision Pictures and China Film Group partnered with Legendary Entertainment, the Burbank-based financier responsible for Crimson Peak, Jurassic World, The Dark Knight and Warcraft, to name a few. After years of partnering with WB, Legendary signed a five-year pact with Universal Pictures in 2014 with Universal agreeing to market and distribute Legendary’s movies worldwide. However, Legendary was purchased for $3.5 billion by China’s Wanda Group earlier this year. Even though Legendary continues to operate independently the plan is to eventually integrate it into Wanda’s entertainment business.

And China is sick of its movies making next to nothing outside of the country. Since 2013, 27 Chinese movies have grossed at least $100m in the country, and the highest any of them has ever grossed in the US/Canada is the $3.2m The Mermaid made earlier this year. That’s compared to the stunning $526m The Mermaid made in China. At least The Mermaid managed a domestic theatrical run at all. 10 of the 27 films never failed to secure such distribution.

So, regardless of how galling it might be from a cultural point of view or how completely fed up you might be with financial excuses for whitewashing in films the answer to why they put Matt Damon into a Chinese movie about the building of The Great Wall lies in the sad domestic stats for China’s biggest films of the past 4 years:

Film

Chinese Gross

Domestic Gross

Any American Star in the Cast?

2016

The Mermaid

$526m

$3.2m

No

The Monkey King 2

$185m

$709k

No

From Vegas to Macau 3

$172m

No*

IP Man 3

$124m

$2.6m

Does Mike Tyson count?

Finding Mr. Right 2

$119m

No

Skiptrace

$110m

Yes; Johnny Knoxville**

2015

Monster Hunt

$381m

$32k

No

Mojin: The Lost Legend

$255m

$1.2m

No

Lost in Hong Kong

$253m

$1.3m

No

Goodbye Mr. Loser

$226m

$1.2m

No

Jian Bing Man

$186m

No

The Man from Macau II

$154m

No

Monkey King: Hero is Back

$153m

No**

Mr. Six

$137m

$1.4m

No

Detective Chinatown

$125m

$475k

No

Dragon Blade

$116m

$74k

Yes; Adrian Brody & John Cusack**

Wolf Totem

$110m

$210k

No

Chronicles of the Ghostly Tribe

$106m

No

2014

Breakup Buddies

$187m

$777k

No

The Monkey King

$167m

No

The Taking of Tiger Mountain

$141m

$228k

No

Dad, Where Are We Going?

$111m

No

The Breakup Guru

$106m

$208k

No

The Continent

$100m

No

2013

Journey to the West

$196m

$18k

No

Personal Tailor

$115m

$375k

No

So Young

$114m

$11k

No

* Stars Chow Yun-fat, the Asian actor who briefly crossed over into American films before returning to Hong Kong

** Stars Jackie Chan

As per Constance Wu’s statement, the counter to all of this might be that they never tried hard enough with any of those other movies, even when they did secure the services of some American actors (e.g., how many people outside of China and online film forums have heard of Skiptrace or Dragon Blade?). And them slotting Matt Damon into The Great Wall is another case of not trying hard enough.

The Great Wall will perhaps be a good learning experience for all involved, specifically that they’ll need to find more organic, culturally sensitive ways to weave in American movie stars to these co-productions. That is if, indeed, The Great Wall turns out to be a traditional white savior narrative (remember, all we really have to go off of at the moment is this relatively short trailer).

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Posted by Kelly Konda

Grew up obsessing over movies and TV shows. Worked in a video store. Minored in film at college because my college didn't offer a film major. Worked in academia for a while. Have been freelance writing and running this blog since 2013.

6 Comments

  1. Well then, it only remains to be seen if Americans want to see Damon looking glum in a Chinese action movie.

    Reply

    1. I don’t, and I will pass.

      Reply

  2. They should bother to put some money in the distribution and the marketing campaign…I remember seeing some glimpses from Monster Hunt and being interested to see it, but when it was ever in a theatre near me, it came and go with me never noticing….if it was ever available to watch at all.

    Reply

  3. […] is commerce, Damon himself is box office gold and Chinese produced films have a long history of not making enough money in the US to make their investors […]

    Reply

  4. […] could soon come a time where US-China co-productions are the norm (Legendary/Universal kicked in on Great Wall) and the peculiar sight of American movie stars being shoved into films they have no business being […]

    Reply

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