TL; dr: I feel conflicted and feel conflicted about feeling conflicted about my enjoying the movie.
The Great Wall, directed by Zhang Yimou, and starring Matt Damon, is a gorgeous, lean and mean blockbuster that entertained me for two hours and engaged my senses. And I feel very conflicted about enjoying it.
Matt Damon plays William. William is a mercenary who has, in the time of the Song Dynasty (around 1100 AD or so, judging from William’s comments, the location of the Chinese Capital, and so on), traveled with some companions across the length of Eurasia in search of the secret of black powder. His companions but two die quickly while being chased by Khitan horsemen, and another dies awkwardly offscreen, leaving just him and his Iberian companion Tovar (Pedro Pascal). Chased by the bandits, and having killed a strange creature in the night, William and Tovar run right into the Great Wall, which has been preparing for an invasion of the monstrous Tao Tei. Every sixty years the Tao Tei come at China, and the time for another attack is nigh. While there, William and Tovar meet Ballard (Willem Defoe) who, twenty five years earlier, came to China for the same reason, but has been trapped ever since. That’s the extent of the Western characters in this movie.
Jing Tian leads the much larger Chinese cast. As Commander Lin, she leads a Crane Troop, a group of women warriors who make death defying dives from platforms on the wall during Tao Tei sieges. It’s absolutely impractical against the Tao Tei zerg rush, but damn, doesn’t it look cool. Zhang Henyu plays the General of the army on the Wall, and Andy Lau plays Wang, a strategist and advisor whose warnings about the Tao Tei have not been heeded as well as they might. Lu Han plays Peng, a young warrior who, language difficulties aside, forms a bond with William. We also get some commanders, a cowardly and sniveling counselor, and a self-centered, cowardly and not at all flatteringly portrayed teenage Emperor who, even so, is probably more mature than Donald Trump
The movie’s visuals are amazing. This was directed by Zhang Yimou, and if you seen Hero, or House of Flying Daggers, or Curse of the Golden Flower, you know what you are in for. Gorgeous cinematography and action sequences with closeups of flying objects. Strongly coded primary colored costumes and things. (The Crane troop, for example, are all in gorgeous blue armor). Lavishly detailed framing of people and things inhabiting their backdrops. This movie was wonderful to just look at. The action sequences were consistently intelligible. The movie doesn’t drag or flag and is paced well.
I loved the proto-silkpunk tech of the movie, however anachronistic and unrealistic. Given that this was most definitely a fantastic Song Dynasty China, I just went with it, especially when they unleashed primitive and unstable balloons on top of their crossbows, crane divers, scissoring blades, interlocking shields, and the rest of the weaponry on command here (And yes, I got a Ken Liu vibe when those balloons appeared).
I am going to steal stuff for this movie for my roleplaying games, that’s for certain. The monsters themselves, some of the characters, and the ideas shown here. Its a realized world that I really like, and want to use pieces of elsewhere. I will be buying this on DVD when it comes out.
The movie was entertaining, fun, and gorgeous and yet I feel conflicted about having seen this, and it does come to the whole “Mighty Whitey” trope. You know this one. White person goes to a foreign land, or even a foreign planet, and it is he (its very often a he) is the absolute key and answer to the problem bedeviling the locals. Heck, if you look even at the movie Independence Day, the entire world seems to be just waiting and faffing for America to lead the way. Same idea. William does bring the lodestone magnet that proves key to beating the Tao Tei. His archery and heroics are crucial to the defeat of the Tao Tei.
Is he a Mighty Whitey? I feel like I can’t really answer that question, and that is what burns at me. I’m a white guy from New York City. Is it for me to determine if something isn’t a Mighty Whitey trope? Is it for me to say, no, this is okay, it’s not really a Mighty Whitey, this is something one can enjoy without concerns of depiction? I can point out the director, the production, the preponderance of characters, statements by the production and all that, but that’s again, feels like I am making a statement I have no standing to make. It would be just as bad for me to say to a woman that an instance of fridging in a movie really isn’t one, or something out and out racist really wasn’t. It wouldn’t be right. It’s not my place to say that.
And yet I saw and enjoyed the film. Does that make me a bad person? Did I do harm by seeing this film, paying the money to do so? I don’t know. Long time readers of my work know my fascination and desire for stories that transcend the “Great Wall of Europe”, especially in fantasy novels. The movie Dragon Blade, with all its absolute wrongheadedness of history, is a story of Romans meeting Han Chinese and that was and is awesome to me. I enjoyed the hell out of it. And then there is the now canceled series Marco Polo, which I really like. I want more like Dragon Blade, and more like Great Wall, and more like Marco Polo..but is it a bad thing that I want this? I really, honestly don’t know, and that is why I feel conflicted. I am not even sure I am sum up “Yes, go see this!” or “No, stay away!”.
I feel conflicted, and awful. And I feel conflicted about that, too, and on and in a recursive fashion. Maybe its best to say that this is the kind of movie that I want and enjoy…and that may in itself be a problem. Or maybe I am overthinking this. I don’t know.