Why Matt Damon was tasked with saving China

Director Zhang Yimou defends the casting of white actors in the $201-million movie set in ancient China

Matt Damon (above) is one of the Western actors in The Great Wall.
Matt Damon (above) is one of the Western actors in The Great Wall. PHOTO: UNIVERSAL PICTURES

WASHINGTON • "Now, what about that movie about the Great Wall of China starring everyone's favourite Chinese actor, Matt Damon?"

It was one of a slew of comments on social media in the past few weeks lampooning The Great Wall, a huge action movie that is scheduled to hit theatres later this year.

The co-production between China and Hollywood is the most expensive film shot entirely in China, costing more than US$150 million (S$201 million). It features actors such as Damon, Willem Dafoe, Andy Lau, Eddie Peng and Lu Han using the Great Wall to defend humanity from a monster attack.

But since the film's trailer was released, journalists and commentators on social media have criticised it for "whitewashing" - replacing roles that could be cast with actors of colour with white actors. What is Damon doing saving ancient China, anyway? Could the Chinese not handle that one themselves?

Director Zhang Yimou defended the movie against charges of whitewashing late last week. "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."

He added: "Matt Damon is not playing a role that was conceived for a Chinese actor."

There is an irony that many have missed. Despite Damon's prominent appearance, the nuts and bolts of The Great Wall are more Chinese than perhaps any major co-production between the United States and China has been.

The film, backed by Universal Pictures and others, is directed by Zhang, perhaps China's most famous film-maker. It prominently features an aspect of China known around the world - the Great Wall. And it is being produced by Legendary Entertainment, a Hollywood studio acquired by Chinese company Dalian Wanda earlier this year, the first time a major American production company has come under Chinese control.

And if successful, it could mark a step forward for the influence of the Chinese film industry around the world.

"The Great Wall is definitely among the biggest budget co-productions, and it's the first very large budget one in which there is a major Chinese creative force behind it," says Aynne Kokas, an assistant professor of media studies at the University of Virginia and the author of the forthcoming book, Hollywood Made In China. "That's the part of the story that's getting left out."

In recent years, Hollywood has begun avidly courting moviegoers in China, the world's second- largest market that could surpass the US to become the largest next year. The Chinese film industry is also eager to develop films that appeal to its own audiences, but can also succeed outside its borders.

Creating a film that captures audiences in China and the US has been often sought after, and rarely achieved, for the global film industry.

In part, this is due to the strict requirements for movies in China. To protect its nascent film industry, China limits the number of foreign films that theatres can show each year. But foreign films can gain guaranteed access to China's lucrative market by applying to be official US-China co-productions.

The sought-after designation means the film will be shown in Chinese movie theatres. But in return, the film must typically feature Chinese actors, be at least partially shot in China and follow China's strict restrictions on content.

One of the only co-produced films that has succeeded among Chinese and American audiences so far, says Kokas, is Kung Fu Panda 3. But she says its particular winning formula is not one that is easily replicable.

As a family film, it did not go against censorship restrictions. Subtitles were not an issue since the studios created two versions of the animation to match the English and Mandarin tracks. And because the film is animated, the topic of the actors' race did not come up.

The Great Wall was written by Hollywood screenwriters and features Western stars Damon, Dafoe and Pedro Pascal, apparently in a bid to attract audiences outside China's borders.

This aspect has made the film so controversial in the West. That backlash was led in part by Asian-American actress Constance Wu, who called out the film on social media for "perpetuating the racist myth that only a white man can save the world".

Others have pointed to an obvious profit motive, saying that Damon's presence is likely to bring in viewers around the world who would not ordinarily watch a film set in ancient China. Legendary Entertainment did not respond to requests for comment.

Casting director PoPing AuYeung, who has worked on Hollywood and Chinese films for decades, says Chinese film-makers remain concerned about trying to market movies with Chinese leading characters to a global audience.

"They think they will lose the global market if they have a Chinese as the lead. But they seem to forget that China is a huge market. A lot of movies flop in the US, but make it in China."

The strategy of putting a white Hollywood actor at the helm of a movie to broaden its reach can fail too, as Wu pointed out. Chinese studios have paid millions of dollars to stars such as Christian Bale, Adrien Brody and John Cusack to appear in mostly Chinese films that ultimately had little success in Western markets.

Inside China, the conversation surrounding the film has been very different. Most Chinese have cheered it, seeing Zhang's involvement in a big-budget Hollywood film and the prominence of the Great Wall as forces that could advance China's cultural influence abroad.

If The Great Wall is a box-office hit, it could serve as a model for future China-US co-productions. If it flops, it will likely leave the industry more confused about how to create a film that appeals to Chinese and international audiences - and whether such a task can reliably be done.

"I think if The Great Wall is successful, it will signal a new path to Chinese global media power," says Kokas. "However, I think the initial responses to the trailer signal that a lot of Sino-US co-productions may have a lot of success in one market and may not meet expectations in the other."


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 11, 2016, with the headline 'Why Matt Damon was tasked with saving China'. Print Edition | Subscribe