Since Hollywood realised the Chinese was the audience to make profits from by virtue of sheer numbers, there have been numerous cringe-worthy attempts to make many of its big blockbuster offerings more “appealing” to China.
There is the China-exclusive version of Iron Man 3, where Tony Stark decides to go to China for a medical operation to remove the shrapnel in his chest, an operation performed by Fan BingBing in a doctor’s costume. She is never brought up again for the rest of the film.
And who can forget Michael Bay’s Transformers: Age of Extinction, with its blatant Chinese product placement in the middle of Texas, or the final battle in Hong Kong where the Beijing government vows, “The central government will defend Hong Kong at all costs!”
Finally, you have the shiny Chinese base on the Moon in Independence Day: Resurgence, relevant for a grand total of 20 minutes in the 2 hour-long movie, before the alien mothership blows it away like it is some annoying fly, after which it is promptly forgotten.
Such attempts reek of laziness and ignorance. Most of us Chinese viewers cringe at what we see as a blatant propagation of Asian stereotypes, something that further, seems to indicate that movies must be stripped of artistic merit and be severely dumbed down in order to appeal to an ‘Asian’ audience. C’mon, give us more credit than that.
But to blame the Privileged Straight White Men of Hollywood alone for this gross cultural misunderstanding is unfair; it’s worth noting that these films were backed by big Chinese corporations. In fact, Transformers even got sued by a Chinese company because its product did not end up in the movie. What is happening here, then is the erection of a Great Wall of ignorance, built by parties on either side of it, where one side believes that as long as the wall is appealing enough for the other side to want to pay to see it, all is well and good, regardless of how tacky and gaudy it is.
A Rainbow Wall of Cliches
Enter Zhang Yimou’s The Great Wall. Let’s take a moment to remember that this is the same director who also gave us Ju Dou, Hero and House of Flying Daggers.
Like all of these films, Great Wall is rich and vivid with colour. The troops are blue, red, yellow, purple and black. The Tao Tie are green, while the dullest and least well-dressed characters are the few Europeans. There is Yimou’s fondness for panoramic shots, so we are treated to the scenes of battle in all their explosive, gory glory. There are uniquely Chinese moments, like the release of lanterns into the sky when a general dies, so they resemble the faint band of the Milky Way.
All of this almost makes for a refreshing change of pace, until you realise the plot is essentially a rip-off of Independence Day–both 1996 and 2016–and Aliens. Horde of monsters (Tao Tie) that devours everything in their path? Check. The devouring is for the nourishment of the Queen, to breed more monsters? Check. Extraterrestrial origins because they were released by a meteor? Check. Killing the Queen ensures the defeat of their entire species? Check.
For all it appears superficially, Great Wall is essentially an archetypal Hollywood alien invasion movie dressed in Chinese garb, complete with all the requisite cliches, down to the attack on the Capital City. If American audiences were hoping for a unique twist, they would be sorely disappointed. Perhaps Zhang has decided that the only way Americans can be comfortable with Chinese culture is through a familiar plot that targets their sense of patriotism.
Adding to this is the issue of Chinese characters being flat to the point of being a bore. Everyone is so dedicated to defeating the Tao Tie that there is no disagreement on how to do it. Sure, everybody has xing ren (trust) in one another, but it seems the only thing that distinguishes the soldiers from one another is the colour of their armour and the role they perform in battle. There is no drama and no disagreement in tactics whatsoever. At least the US President fired his Secretary of Defense in the first Independence Day. The characters are as dull as their armour is bright.
If this movie was supposed to let the wider world appreciate Chinese culture, the only thing I’ve learnt is that the Emperor is essentially useless. In fact, that this film “has Chinese elements in it”, as Zhang himself says, is utterly irrelevant to the plot, as alien invasions are pretty much the same everywhere, regardless of country or time period.
The only cliche that Zhang avoided was the use of Matt Damon as the White Man who Saves Them All. Damon’s character’s discovery of the means by which to defeat the Tao Tie is accidental. He does not do any of the planning to engage the Queen, he follows the orders of the Chinese generals and his attempt to kill the Queen fails–twice. In the end, it is Jing Tian who does it. Criticisms of whitewashing then, in this case, is not quite justified. Rather, it is the artistic merit of the film that is questionable. As far as invasion-type storylines go, it simply doesn’t add anything new or fresh.
Crossing the Wall
If Great Wall has only added on then, to the huge wall of cultural misunderstanding between China and Hollywood, can it ever be overcome? The answer is yes. In fact, it has already been done, specifically, by the film Rogue One. Donnie Yen and Jiang Wen’s characters are fully integrated into the storyline. Their feats of badassery fit well into the overall aesthetic of the film. They have enough narrative presence to be significant and their actions have direct consequences on the other characters. The result? An added measure of thrill for us Chinese movie-goers, seeing ourselves represented in a film that is fun, enjoyable and also highly regarded; it sends a message to non-Chinese viewers that we are just as capable of quality acting and art.
Great Wall on the other hand, in conjunction with all the atrocious examples I’ve mentioned earlier, epitomizes how cultural appeal simply cannot be forced. Randomly inserting Chinese scenes into huge blockbusters or setting an entire Hollywood-type blockbuster in Ancient China, for the matter, only results in terrible movies limited in artistic merit.
Not only that, but it insults the sensibilities of both Western and Chinese audiences, ensuring that each side thinks the other incapable of enjoying actual art. In addition to Hollywood’s whitewashing and diversity problem, this side of the Pacific also needs to be aware that the Chinese audience is smarter than they think.