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Has Zhang Yimou died?

movie big mouth

Hollywood has long been accused of its massive destruction of the world’s cultural landmark and heritage. In the recent action-adventure monster epic, “The Great Wall,” director Zhang Yimou brings the battleground to the legendary fortifications of China, assembling a team of multi-racial warriors to battle the flesh-eating monsters named Taotie. Since its release in China on Dec. 16, 2016, China’s critics and amateur movie-goers alike almost unanimously bashed the film, projecting their disappointment with Zhang and his “descent” from a respected art house director into a blatantly commercial moviemaker. 

On Douban.com, China’s most popular movie review website, the film scores a pathetic 5.0 based on more than 180 thousand ratings. In particular, one Douban critic, Xiedu Dianying, or “Film Blasphemy” in English, infamously ranted in his microblog, “Zhang Yimou has died!” The sheer opprobrium heaped on the film had brought up important questions of why the film was so badly received in China and whether the film had truly marked an end of Zhang’s artistic career.

“The Great Wall” tells the story of a western mercenary William Garin (played by the famous Matt Damon) who, on his quest of stealing the mysterious black gunpowder, discovers the secret fortress of the Great Wall, which is built to protect mankind from mythic deadly creatures—Taotie. Garin soon teams up with the elite army guarding the Great Wall and eventually aids the army’s commander Lin Mei (played by Jing Tian) to destroy the Taotie queen, saving China from total annihilation.

As Zhang expressed in his interviews, the film was not meant to be a wholly Chinese story, since he hoped that the film would export the Chinese culture to the west. The film faithfully exhibits a wide range of stunning Chinese inventions and consciously evades the accusation of whitewashing by featuring Damon being humbled and reformed in the Chinese virtues of bravery and altruism. For instance, Jing Tian, in her strongly accented English, reiterates to Damon the importance of Xinren—or “trust”—in combat, but to the domestic Chinese audience, her moral lessons are nothing more than banal and didactic.

However, given that Zhang’s ambition was to sell the movie to an international audience, a complicated plot or message would have made the western moviegoers confused and disoriented. Thus, the film resembled more an odd cross-cultural marriage between a Hollywood blockbuster and a mere collection of superficial Chinese motifs. The film, in its search of universality, oversimplifies “the Chinese story” and, not surprisingly, offends the Chinese reviewers who have been expecting an imaginary representation of a rich and ancient culture.

What is more disappointing than the lack of meaning is the sheer lack of logic. As illustrated in the film, the Chinese selflessness and sacrifice to win a war are not so much virtues as utter foolishness. Most notably, the purpose of the “crane corps”—one of the five divisions of the secret armies—is highly doubtful. Why do the armies need women to bungee-jump down the wall to lance the Taoties when there are archers and cannons available? Does that not defeat the purpose of building such a high wall? More, Jing Tian, commander of the “crane corps,” cites her foolishly suicidal division to teach Damon the value of selflessness and trust, and Damon buys it. The ways with which the film’s morality is rendered are just as inept as the morality itself.

On the other hand, the visual style of the film bears all the hallmarks of a typical Zhang Yimou movie. The violent onslaught of bold, saturated colors coming in the forms of production design, lighting and visual effects renders the audience dazzled and numb. Unfortunately, Zhang’s color play in the film is hardly a creative breakthrough. Compared to his previous award-winning “Raise the Red Lantern” (1991) and “Hero” (2002), in which he artfully gives colors symbolism or associations, the color choice in “The Great Wall” seems arbitrary and meaningless. The five divisions of the secret army, each wearing a particular saturated color, cannot stop one from associating them with the upcoming Power Rangers. Even the beautifully conceived shots of the colored glass, whose ideas are recycled from his previous “The Flowers of War” (2011), add a paradoxically romantic and Christian touch to the supposedly brutal and apocalyptic finale.

Nonetheless, it would be unfair to suggest that the film marked the end of Zhang’s artistic career, for he delivered what he had been asked to make—a no-nonsense visual spectacle, a classic Hollywood monster movie. As the epitome of the Chinese Fifth Generation Movement, Zhang has always been a remarkably protean filmmaker. From the iconic exotica in his earliest “Ju Dou” (1990) and “Raise the Red Lantern,” to the revived neorealist approach to social reality in his “The Story of Qiu Ju” (1992) and “Not One Less” (1999), the director’s distinctive taste and style had always been adapted to appeal to the juries at the prestigious festivals of Cannes and Venice, winning him many international accolades. After the unprecedented success of Ang Lee’s “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” (2000), Zhang keenly sensed the global popularity of the wuxia genre and made “Hero,” thereby transforming himself into China’s number one blockbuster filmmaker ever since.

Then again, while “The Great Wall” is certainly not Zhang’s first attempt to communicate to the western audience, it is, by far, his most radical transformation. The film is, after all, an experiment on whether a film made in China may become hits in the west. Regardless of the film’s reception in China, Zhang has taken his first important step as he now heads to the next destination of his career—Hollywood.

“The Great Wall” will be released in the United States on Feb. 17.

Robin Wang is a Trinity sophomore. His column, "movie big mouth" runs on alternate Tuesdays.

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