Tuesday, 7 March 2017

The Great Wall (2017) - Movie Review

Lines of argument like what I’m about to get into are usually the sorts of strawman burning matters that get people lynched on social media for daring to voice it. But as I have already brought up this point in previous reviews, it’s worth repeating: I don’t care about “whitewashing” controversies when it comes to film casts. Or, at least, I don’t buy into them nearly as much as critics have in recent years. The reasons why are many and varied, from how people tend to cherry-pick examples to rage against to the inherent hypocrisy involved in isolating only this instance (white actors portraying non-whites) as a bad thing. But the biggest factor for my own reasoning is that, considering the utter crap I’ve highlighted on this blog, I can think of a myriad of worse sins that a filmmaker can commit than anything involving ethnic (or non-ethnic) casting. So, imagine my lack of reaction to how the only thing that anyone seems to discuss with this film is how a white actor was cast as the lead in a film set in China and populated by and primarily made by the Chinese. Time to dig in, and let’s see if there’s anything else worth discussing.

The plot: William (Matt Damon), a European mercenary, arrives with his comrade Tovar (Pedro Pascal) in China under the pretence of trading. As they reach the legendary Great Wall, guarded by a Chinese army known as the Nameless Order, they discover that the Order is in the middle of a seemingly endless war against the Tao Tei, a race of monsters purportedly brought to Earth as a means of cosmic karma. As William finds himself embroiled in the conflict, he starts to understand that there are some wars that are worth fighting in more than others.

The cast here is pretty top-notch, even if the English dialogue can sound off coming from the Chinese cast. Jing Tian is quite brilliant as the leader of the all-female Crane Troop of the army, embodying a form of female agency that has been sorely missing from even the more progressive films of late. Zhang Hanyu and Andy Lau as two of the higher-ups in the Order add some pleasant regal tinting to the story, Willem Dafoe adds a lot to the film’s war-torn subtext, even in his mainly expository role, and Pascal creates a weirdly complex presence in the film as a rather simple and unapologetically self-serving soldier. And then there’s Damon, who manages one hell of a tightrope walk of serving as the (Western) audience’s entry point while not overshadowing the characters that surround him.

Even with Trolls’ sugary palette still in my memory, this is easily the most colourful film I’ve seen in a very long time. Director Zhang Yimou’s knack for vibrant and popping colours is intact here, coordinated amongst the Chinese soldiers to create some incredibly striking sequences. Frequent Yimou collaborator Zhao Xiaoding and Stuart Dryburgh’s camera work is also worthy of commendation, as the wide sweeping shots we see not only give the narrative a real sense of scope and grandeur which aids the world-building but also work to highlight how much detail has been put into the visuals… practically, at least. The CGI work, primarily in depicting the Tao Tei, isn’t as good. While part of me wants to defend how jarring it looks with the effects work emphasising the difference between the fantastical bordering-on-science-fiction monsters and the flesh and blood military, that would only serve to ignore how it falls short in quite a few sequences.

If there’s anything here more visually enticing than the set and costume design, it’s how they frame the action scenes. I can already tell that the rest of the year will have to compete with this in terms of visceral chops because the way Yimou utilises the pieces of the narrative, from the specialised sectors of the army to the tightly-choreographed formations of both the military and the Tao Tei, right down to the Wall itself, is simply masterful. Hell, to further how Commander Lin shows real feminine strength, the Crane Troop as a whole is easily the most badass of the entire Order and watching them lay waste to the Tao Tei is quite exhilarating.

As for the story, this is pretty much the opposite of everything that the kneejerk racist allegations this film has garnered have depicted it as being. Damon’s presence within the plot, as a European mercenary more familiar with petty squabbles for power and money, is rather important in the grand scheme of things, especially when juxtaposed with the close-knit circle of trust surrounding the Nameless Order. Arguments can be made about whether there truly is a justifiable reason for war, but as it is portrayed here, William and Tovar start out very much in the wrong. They aren’t white saviours because they are the ones who have to be taught that their own ideals surrounding what people will fight and die for are rather misguided. This also plays into the origin of the Tao Tei themselves, combining a Chinese parable involving mortal greed with a sci-fi entrance point that is eerily reminiscent of Aliens.

Through the story, rather than having the white main character spread his own biased gospel, he sees the army’s composition and values as something to be heralded. With the presence of black powder as the great weapon that the West is vying for, it all mingles together into an overall theme that, in stark contrast with the trailer reception, is about people from different backgrounds working together against a far greater threat. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: With how divided the West continues to get even with itself, this is the kind of story we need in cinemas right now.

All in all, this is far and away better than its critical preamble gives it credit for. The acting is very good, the visuals are very distinct and appealing to the eye, the action is incredible and leads to some truly awesome sequences, and the writing wields its setting and involvement of foreigners (from the perspective of the Chinese director) to create a story about the pettiness of war and just how much can be accomplished when people work together, rather than try to outdo each other. Unless you’re so myopic that you can’t look past Matt Damon’s casting, or possibly see it as a demonization of either side's cultural values, chances are that you’ll find plenty to like about this film.

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