In defense of Chinese filmmaker Zhang Yimou’s film “The Great Wall”

I have always been puzzled that Zhang Yimou’s films have not received proper recognition in the United States. IMHO, Yimou is the greatest filmmaker on this earth, and Gong Li, his former muse, the greatest actress of her generation. Li  can be seen in his first film, Red Sorghum, in Raise the Red Lantern, a more renowned film, and To Live, an indictment of policies and campaigns of the Communist government. To Live was banned in mainland China by the Chinese State Administration of Radio, Film, and Television. This film  was and is a tribute to Yimou’s courage. It was was banned in mainland China by the Chinese State Administration of Radio, Film, and Television[3] due to its critical portrayal of various policies and campaigns of the Communist government.

I have seen every film Yimou has ever made, and when Gong Li was his star, I would say to myself, “She makes Meryl Streep look like an amateur.” Li could convey, with the subtlest of glances, a world of emotion and mystery. Yimou has always taken on feminist themes, something most American filmmakers have not. To illustrate, ponder the machismo works of Scorsese, Coppola, and Kubrick, all filmmakers to applaud and whose work I enjoy. However, do they take on the inherent destructiveness of polygamy (Raise the Red Lantern)? And do their films universally  embody strong female characters (think of Hero, House of Flying Daggers, To Live, The Flowers of War, and now The Great Wall)?

I have not yet seen the machismo of American film directors in any of Yimou’s films. I don’t think there is an American director who appeals to the feminist side of me more than Yimou. Add to this colorful and dramatic cinematography, the best film editing, wondrous musical scores, and the most perfectly directed cast and casting (I know, redundant but I had to say it that way to make my point), and I just don’t see the problem with a big film such as The Great Wall.

I took it for what it was — a legendary fantastical film about fighting monsters on China’s Great Wall. I would have thought any film made by an American filmmaker about the Great Wall would have a militaristic and machismo theme with few female warriors, if any. The Great Wall was a spectacular sight to behold, and I feel a great urge to write to Yimou to thank him for all that he has done for filmmaking. And to say, “I’m sorry, dude, but Americans just don’t get  you. If it counts at all, I do!

I think it is absolutely no accident that Donald Trump has felt free to criticize Chinese policies out of envy for all that the Chinese have accomplished. Criticism of their system of government, draconian perhaps yes, cannot be made without also condemning the flaws and hypocrisy of the American political system. Chinese artists are not responsible for their system of government. The Great Wall made me want to learn more about Chinese history and culture, something that is addressed in Naomi Novik’s Temeraire series of books, an historical reimagining of the Napoleonic era complete with aerial corps of flying dragons.

As an aside, iIn Novik’s books, the Chinese treat sentient dragons with respect and honor and dignity; the English treat sentient creatures no better than dogs to be used only for their own militaristic ends and hegemony. There is something to Novik’s point of view. Her books are worth a read, by the way, and the great director Peter Jackson has optioned the series; I hope he goes ahead with the project(s). There are seven to eight books in all. If you like fantasy, heroism, and the love of an ultimate companion, a sentient dragon, you ought to take a look at Novik’s work. If Jackson doesn’t make the series, perhaps Yimou will?

If I had to make a list of the people I’d want to sit down for lunch with (for about a week), Zhang Yimou would be at the very top of that list. Perhaps I can get him to join the Over-Rateds. Qu’est-ce que tu penses?

14 thoughts on “In defense of Chinese filmmaker Zhang Yimou’s film “The Great Wall”

  1. This is so spot on. I haven’t seen as many of his films as you, but what you say coheres with my experience. I don’t think American audiences can relate to “non-Western” film sensibilities–their responses to both Indian and Chinese film often strike me as ethnocentric. I loved “Great Wall,” but found the reviews I read offensively stupid (e.g., Manohla Dargis in The New York Times, who wrote a memorably stupid-offensive review of “Kite Runner” as well). I sometimes get the impression that American reviewers equate genuine, non-cynical displays of emotion as mere sentimentality, and feel the need to crap all over it whenever they see it. The reviews of “Great Wall” are in that vein. That said, the reviews of “To Live” and “Raise the Red Lantern” were pretty positive.

    1. “To Live” was an open criticism of Communism so Americans wouldn’t have had a problem with it. And “Raise the Red Lantern” is a film quite in another vein than “The Great Wall.” Not the same in regard to its ambition in terms of effects as well as intended audience, yet more ambitious in regard to its social and historical commentary. One could hardly argue that “Raise the Red Lantern” is not a great film. It is as close to perfect as a film can come; “The Great Wall” has some flaws albeit none that bothered me.

  2. Thank you for this excellent review, I watched this in Manchester England with my family and we and the audience loved it. A random stranger was so genuinely enthusiastic that he just started to talk to me about it. I feel movies like the fantasy genre have certain hooks and cues that have to be present for a larger appeal. I like that this film had a distinct Asian flavour reminiscent of Yimou’s earlier films and also a little bit of Kurosawa’s Ran.

    1. I haven’t seen Kurosawa’s “Ran” although now that you mention it, I’ll put it on my list of films to see (and it’s a VERY long list). I loved the distinct Asian flavor of “The Great Wall,” but that is precisely what American audiences will probably not respond to emotionally. Also, the idea of trust in the context of defense of one’s nation is not often explored in American film (at least I don’t think so). Damon’s character had no trust; he was inspired by the trust with which the Chinese engaged in their defense. He probably never saw anything like that in all the wars he participated in. He was cynical and untrusting. In the end, he chose his friend over riches. What could be more wondrous than that act?

      1. I would add that a friend who went to the film with us didn’t like the film precisely because she did not like the “fantasy” genre. I’ve come to admire fantasy writers in the last few years — Diana Gabaldon (the “Outlander” series), George R.R. Martin (the “Game of Thrones” series), and my personal favorite, Naomi Novik’s “Temeraire” series of books beginning with “His Majesty’s Dragon.”

        When I read the first of Novik’s series — and I discovered it by accident — I was hooked. Imagine the most powerful dragon in the world, the blackest dragon ever, a sentient dragon with substantial intellect, with more courage in a claw than most people have in their entire bodies, and a creature capable of a love and loyalty that transcends species as well as time. What fiction writer comes close to such a picture? I can’t name one. Fantasy writers are tasked with creating a whole new world that is internally consistent, and then they can get to the business of writing the novel. Their imaginations fill me with awe and wonder.

        As a girl, I was an avid reader. A few years ago, my father told me that he had seen me reading Egyptian mythology, and he asked me why I was reading it. I told him, “I’ve read all of the Greek myths. Duh”. He was astonished and still remembers that moment. I’d like to take a month or so to recover my memories of those stories as I haven’t read any mythology since. Clearly my response to fantasy novels now is not inconsistent with the inner world of that little girl; I used books to escape the terror of my world.

        I still do.

      2. I agree but if China continues to flourish more and more Americans will become familiar with those little cultural and genre cues that so many need to enjoy a movie—hence the reboot and sequel blight. I look at my kids generation in U.K. and so many are familiar with Japanese manga/anime and k-pop that gives me hope that culture does slowly proliferate. You are absolutely spot on about Damon’s epiphany and the feminist nature of Yimou’s heroine. The possibility of romance for the female general is never on the table and despite attraction neither Damon or she undermine her leadership position. My daughters just loved her character.

  3. She was awesome as are ALL of Yimou’s female heroines. His respect for women permeates his work. One doesn’t often see this in American filmmakers. I can hardly think of one although I’m sure there are some, and I’m just blanking at the moment. I am basking in Yimou’s greatness for now!

    1. All three are superb. Be prepared to read a lot if you take on Gabaldon and Martin as the books average somewhere between 800-1000 pages. Novik’s books are shorter so you might want to start with her (and she’s my favorite besides).

  4. Allison one final thing: thanks for this review.
    Ever since this movie we have been left cold by the abysmal level of discussion of this movie. I really needed this to close the loop you really captured the essence of the film. You should put this on Rotten tomatoes etc it’s shocking how poor its ratings are there.

    1. That’s a great idea. I had hoped to put more detail regarding the film but I’d have to see it again to do so. I guess what I’ve written here is enough (and of course I could update my review once I see it again and I WILL see it again!).

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