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Movie Review: The Great Wall

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The movie sits uneasily on the dividing line between propaganda and art

CAST: Matt Damon, Pedro Pascal, Jing Tian | DIRECTOR: Zhang Yimou

This movie is a carefully woven tapestry that showcases the glory of China before it spectacularly declined after the opium wars, then succumbed to the consequent colonial exploitation from the West, and, still later, military aggression from Japan.

'The Great Wall' is set in an earlier golden era, in a nation that was at the forefront of science and technology. As the movie begins, China has invented gunpowder, and soldiers of fortune have come to this land to steal the secrets of 'the black powder'. Clearly, cannon fire takes the art of warfare to a new level and the European looters, William (Matt Damon), Pero (Pedro Pascal) and Sir Ballard (Willem Dafoe), are here to hack the code, so to speak. During their search, they bump into another wonder of this ancient land, the Great Wall of China.

This is the essential problem of Chinese cinema - the difficulty of sifting nationalism from art and entertainment. It is particularly true of a big budget film like 'The Great Wall', where an international cast is helmed by well known director, Zhang Yimou. In the narrative, when the unwashed Europeans are captured by the special force that guards the Great Wall, the lady commander, Lin Mae (Jing Tian), is intrigued by the best looking white male of the ensemble, and engages in animated discussions with the Matt Damon character about why different civilizations go to war over food and money. Her take is that Westerners do it for greed, citing William's own dubious status as a warrior who has fought for many flags. Whereas, she claims, that her war is not for material causes, but for reasons like trust, faith and nation. There is no doubt that she is attracted to William, but her personal life is subsumed under the onerous weight of duty and loyalty to her clan.

So though the film is well made, with superb use of 3D and special effects and lovely use of colour coding, it sits uneasily on the dividing line between propaganda and art. Individual choices like love, friendship and romance, seem to be missing.

But, ironically, for an English and Mandarin language film extolling the virtues of China, the movie pays obeisance, not to local folklore or to historical reasons for the building of the Great Wall, but to Hollywood science fiction. The marauders in the film are not the mongols hordes, or miscellaneous bandits who traumatized the forces guarding the wall, but the fictional Tao Tie, creatures that look like something out of Jurassic Park, and who are supposed to have evolved from a meteor that struck China.

So, eventually, the battle with the Tao Tie reduces a movie that is set in a historical period, and about the conflict between Western and Chinese values, to yet another American inspired video game cinematic adaptation. This is unfortunate.