To a slight degree, I do understand the controversy surrounding the upcoming film The Great Wall. When I first saw an ad for it, my immediate reaction was, "Say, what? Matt Damon is who comes in to save all of China with the building of the Great Wall?? Seriously?" I think it's a reasonable reaction.
Then, however, weeks later, I read who directed the film.
My immediate reaction to that was -- Yipes! Zhang freaking Yimou directed this??!! There is no earthly way he did anything to even thinkably demean the nation of China. So, there has to be a reason for all of this. And, yes, of course, it turns out that there is.
First of all, for those who don't recognize his name, Zhang Yimou is one of the great film directors today -- and on the list of all-time. You've even probably seen his work, if you weren't aware. He's the fellow who directed the other-worldly stunning Opening Ceremonies of the Beijing Olympics. He directed the film, Hero, which I wrote about here, and said it was perhaps the most cinematically gorgeous movie I'd ever seen. It was also nominated for Best Foreign Language Oscar. I haven't seen his full portfolio of film, but the 4-5 or so that I have seen have all been thought, rich, tremendous works -- among them, Flowers of War, Coming Home, and House of Flying Daggers. As timing would have it, a few months ago I added his movie, Raise the Red Lantern, which won the Oscar as Best Foreign Language Picture, to my Netflix queue -- and it was shipped to me yesterday, so it should be arriving any day. His movies range from deeply serious character studies to more adventurous, fun works, but all are masterfully made and thoughtful, with a deep focus on Chinese culture and the characters who fill them. Three have been nominated for Best Foreign Language Film Oscars.
I should note, as well, that Hollywood has been trying to get Zhang Yimou to work here for many years -- and he has repeatedly turned them down. He has consistently said that he only wants to work in China. And given the freedom he has there with his storytelling, budget, availability of resources and control of his films, I can easily understand why. He is a god-like figure in the Chinese film world. In Hollywood, he'd be a hired gun, under the constraints of the studio system.
Among the criticism of the casting, all of which seems to have come from people who haven't seen the film, was one by an American actress of Chinese descent who is in a TV series, who complained of "whitewashing," where a role intended for an actor of color is taken instead by a white actor. The first response I read to all the controversy came from an annoyed Matt Damon who said, “The whole idea of whitewashing, I take that very seriously ... it’s a monster movie and it’s a historical fantasy and I didn’t take a role away from a Chinese actor. It wasn’t altered because of me in any way.”
Now, in fairness, one would expect an actor to say something along those lines -- though in equal fairness, when he says he takes whitewashing very seriously, his career and life seems to support that. But mostly, it's a long statement put out by director Zhang Yimou himself that makes the strongest stance . He wrote --
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. I believe that is a trend that should be embraced by our industry. Our film is not about the construction of the Great Wall. Matt Damon is not playing a role that was originally conceived for a Chinese actor. The arrival of his character in our story is an important plot point. There are five major heroes in our story and he is one of them — the other four are all Chinese. The collective struggle and sacrifice of these heroes are the emotional heart of our film. As the director of over 20 Chinese language films and the Beijing Olympics, I have not and will not cast a film in a way that was untrue to my artistic vision. I hope when everyone sees the film and is armed with the facts they will agree.
I haven't seen the film, so I can't judge what the truth is. But based on what I know of Matt Damon's work and most of all -- far more than even that -- what I know of Zhang Yimou's career, I'm not only inclined to believe him without reservation, I'd be shocked to learn otherwise,
As just a small sample of his work, here's the trailer for Hero.
Robert J. Elisberg is a political commentator, screenwriter, novelist, tech writer and also some other things that I just tend to keep forgetting.
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