Last month, the trailer for Zhang Yimou’s upcoming blockbuster “The Great Wall” sparked outrage across social media because of its decision to cast Matt Damon in the lead role, protecting China’s most well-known wonder from monsters.
One of the most outspoken critics was Constance Wu, a Taiwanese-American actor who stars in ABC’s Fresh Off the Boat. Wu attacked the decision to cast Damon in a lengthy Twitter rant:
“We have to stop perpetuating the racist myth that a [sic] only white man can save the world. It’s not based on actual fact. Our heroes don’t look like Matt Damon. They look like Malala. Ghandi [sic]. Mandela,” she wrote. “[…] pointing out the repeated implied notion that white people are superior to POC [People of Color] and that POC need salvation from our own color via white strength.”
The legendary Chinese director Zhang Yimou has since responded to criticism of “whitewashing” in his latest movie. According to Zhang, Damon’s character in the film was never intended to be played by a Chinese man.
“Our film is not about the construction of the Great Wall,” Zhang told Entertainment Weekly. “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.”
With the notable exception of Matt Damon, the film stars a predominantly Chinese cast, including Hong Kong star Andy Lau, EXO band member Luhan, TFBOYS bandleader Wang Junkai, and Chen Xuedong (Tiny Times). It is Zhang Yimou’s first English-language film and has a whopping budget of $150,000 million, making it the largest collaboration between Chinese and American film companies.
Zhang says that the insane budget is evidence of the film’s good intentions and argues that it will help bring Chinese filmmaking to the world like never before — or at least help bring it back to China.
“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,” Zhang said.
Last month, Stanley Rosen, a professor of political science from the University of Southern California, argued that the film was part of a soft power push for China. With the popularity of Western films in China, China wants “some reciprocity for Chinese culture overseas,” he said.
While Chinese audiences would likely rush out to see the movie no matter what, Damon was cast to give the film some appeal for American audiences. Once in theaters they would be exposed to Chinese filmmakers, actors and culture. Or at least that’s the idea.
We’ll see if it works out or not. The film’s release is set for December in China and sometime in 2017 in the US.
By Robin Winship