The Great Wall represents Hollywood capitalism with Chinese characteristics and the result isn't good

Two adventurers (played by Pedro Pascal and Matt Damon, both above) escape monsters, only to fall into the hands of Chinese soldiers.
Two adventurers (played by Pedro Pascal and Matt Damon, both above) escape monsters, only to fall into the hands of Chinese soldiers.PHOTO: UIP



104 minutes/opens tomorrow/2/5stars

The story: Two adventurers from the West, Garin and Tovar (Matt Damon and Pedro Pascal) are captured by soldiers of the Nameless Order, who stand guard at The Great Wall. The Order's commanders (two of them played by Jing Tian and Eddie Peng) are intrigued by how the pair escaped the beasts known as taotie, known to roam the lands outside the Wall.

The fantastical man-eaters in the story are dwarfed by the monstrous creature that is the movie itself.

This hugely expensive (US$150 million or S$217 million) computer- effects beast is a chimera bearing the face of Matt Damon, mated to the body of a Chinese movie industry straining to score a global hit.

The result is less than the sum of its parts, but is anyone surprised? Bad vibes have dogged this production from the time it was announced, the criticisms centring on the white-saviour narrative that many feared would taint the project.

Here is the good news: Chinese soldiers save China and, in a reversal from the usual, the white characters support the Asian heroes and provide the comic relief.


But that is the only positive thing that can be said about this project.

Not even acclaimed director Zhang Yimou (House Of Flying Daggers, 2004; Raise The Red Lantern, 1991), brought in for his prestige value, can save this attempt at Hollywood capitalism with Chinese characteristics.

That only the characters played by Damon, Pascal and Willem Dafoe (as prisoner Ballard) feel like real, flawed humans, can be blamed on the fact that the writing team is entirely Western.

The Chinese in the cast play the usual stoic, noble, selfless and completely unrelatable people seen in too many China-made productions and no amount of Zhang prestige or expensive Western writing talent can hide the story's patriotic bent.

So eager are the troops to sacrifice themselves for the cause that a vital part of the garrison's defence is a suicide squad composed of spear-wielding, bungee-jumping women. Yes, a bungee-strung kamikaze team.

The sight of the women leaping balletically from the Wall and into the hordes of taotie is meant to be be soul-stirringly heroic, but much like this movie, their modus operandi fails to make the slightest bit of sense.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 28, 2016, with the headline 'An expensive beast even Zhang Yimou can't save'. Print Edition | Subscribe