Is the Search for a China-Hollywood Blockbuster Doomed?
The flailing 'Great Wall' aspires to be a bicultural extravaganza. The result is a mess.
With The Great Wall, a classic army vs. monsters tale, director Zhang Yimou has brought America the most expensive Chinese film ever created. The movie may be backed by a Hollywood studio and it may star no less an American icon than Matt Damon, and yet it proffers China as the source of military might and moral right. Hollywood and China’s commissars have always made for strange bedfellows, but have they finally figured out how to beget viable offspring? Will other major stars follow Damon’s example and act in films that promote Beijing’s message? Will American audiences watch them? Will Chinese? Can propaganda ever make for a real blockbuster? Or will the powers on both sides someday relent and let a director like Zhang make the kind of nuanced human dramas that made his name in the first place? —The Editors
I remember writing stories back in 2011 about the genesis of The Great Wall when I worked for Variety, stories that continued after joining The Hollywood Reporter. In those heady days, it seemed like everyone was developing a massive-budget co-production with China, and previously rational, gimlet-eyed investors rushed slates of monster movie blockbusters that would equally thrill the fanboys of Main Street and Mianyang.
We are still waiting for most of these projects, such as Marvel supremo Stan Lee’s The Annihilator or X-Men creator Tom DeSanto’s Gods. Once the euphoria of tapping into what then seemed like limitless funds wore off, producers and writers began to realize that maybe making a movie that worked in both markets was a far more challenging prospect than it looked.
The Great Wall had a tough time unspooling, starting out with Edward Zwick as director, with Hong Kong entrepreneur Kelvin Wu as co-financier in Legendary East with Thomas Tull. The budget was thereafter scaled back massively, then pumped up, Kelvin Wu was gone after the failed capital raise in Hong Kong, there were rewrites, Peter Loehr became head of Legendary East, there were the usual production difficulties and endless to-and-fro that accompanies a project of that scale.
Add to this the expectations weighing on the movie, the idea that this was The One, the film to bridge the chasm between Hollywood and China. In 2015, the narrative about the film changed. Nobody wants to make a movie to prove a point, but that was what The Great Wall was becoming. The underwhelming box office and reviews have made people realize that they were expecting too much. There will still be link-ups between Hollywood and China, but the Sino-Hollywood marriage is going to be built on cash rather than creativity.
Expect fewer big movie stars taking on roles in Chinese projects. The talent input will instead be in production and financing. Chinese companies will take pieces of U.S. movies, and Hollywood studios will focus on making movies for the muscular domestic Chinese market.
Hollywood does archetypes really well — Avatar, Titanic, Transformers all outperformed in China, but there is no reason for thinking that China’s fledgling movie industry would ever be able to reciprocate. The heavy hand of censorship means that Chinese filmmakers are always starting out at a disadvantage to their overseas competitors. They have had to make massive compromises before the project even begins. Chinese directors complain that if they made the movies they wanted to make, they wouldn’t get a Chinese release but would be consigned to shining at film festivals overseas. But who in China wants that nowadays?
The creative disconnect abides.
The Great Wall is simply a dazzlingly bad film, co-production or not. While it is spectacularly made with the director’s trademark of scale, order, color, light, and rhythm, it is nevertheless a monster film with no soul, a zombie story with no emotion, and a threadbare narrative with little plot. A Taotei-like gluttonous creature with no restraint, the film is a Sino-Hollywood co-production run amok.
Though the film cashes in on trendy fantasy drama, The Great Wall is no Game of Thrones. There is not a compelling story-world for sophisticated characters with complex arcs to dwell and grow in The Great Wall. It is a fantasy with little intricate human drama. Worse, the thin plotline is further burdened with a Chinese nationalist fantasy that displays Chinese military might and pageantry at its most excessive. Dwarfed by the gigantic Great Wall, the gunpowder crazed European mercenaries appear captivated literally and figuratively by the enormity of China and Chinese culture. They are, in time, taught a moral lesson, chiefly by the righteous Chinese female Commander, on fighting for trust and honor instead of gunpowder. The clichéd narrative fits the myth of Western barbarians being tamed and enlightened by the Chinese civilization as the Chinese commander lectures them on the benefits of patriotism and bilateral action. It is as if the entire Western Canon of medieval adventures did not exist.
I’m not sure if anybody knows what China-meets-Hollywood looks like, but in its eagerness to feed China’s bloating ego and market, Hollywood and its Chinese partners have concocted a colorfully synchronized mass devoid of genuine human touch and investment in real feelings and imagination. It is a reminder that a big budget, star actors, and excessive visual effects do not magically translate into compelling stories, Hollywood or Chinese. The Great Wall has failed to advance anybody’s power, financial or cultural.
But the adventure of Sino-Hollywood co-production will continue, given China’s massive film market, which has surpassed the North America to be the world’s largest. Whether such transnational film practices based entirely on cold market calculations can yield films of universal appeal is anybody’s guess. Though American audiences might persist in their refusal to embrace subtitled films, Sino-Hollywood co-productions can nonetheless increase the American public’s awareness of and exposure to China.
In The Great Wall, however, I see no good material for a sequel (though the studios, sadly, will most likely attempt to provide one.)
So, a message to folks in Hollywood and China who are blessed with the power to greenlight films we are allowed to see: perhaps a less pompous and more intimate human story could one day emerge when a film is not burdened with the dual tasks of carrying the torch of a national culture, and the box-office?
That is a Sino-Hollywood co-production I would like to watch.
The wait is over; Zhang Yimou’s The Great Wall opened in the North American market in February 2017, following its opening in China last December. As has been endlessly reported, this was intended to be more than just a movie, it was an “event,” the first serious attempt to link the two largest film markets in a co-production that had a production budget north of $150 million, starred Matt Damon, and was 80 percent in English. However, by most standard indicators, the film has failed to meet expectations, grossing under $18.5 million on its opening weekend, despite being shown on 3,326 screens, far more than any previous Chinese film.
This failure can be traced to a number of factors, which, I would argue, will make it difficult for future Chinese films or Sino-American co-productions to succeed in both markets. First, judging from the reviews, part of the problem can be traced to the hype surrounding the film’s buildup and the unrealistic expectations of those familiar with the previous efforts of director Zhang and star Damon. Accompanying the high expectations, ironically, was a wariness, even cynicism, with many critics perhaps expecting a film written by a committee that would have great visuals and special effects, but would attempt to be as culturally inoffensive as possible in order to appeal to multiple markets. Of the 161 reviews on website Rotten Tomatoes, only 35 percent were positive, and even those that gave it a fresh rating admitted it wasn’t “good,” but it was a “deliriously silly mess,” “enjoyable nonsense,” an absurd “hoot-and-a-half,” and what Roger Corman might have done “if he made a mega-budgeted, multinational film.”
Second, and one indication of the challenges of meeting audience demand in both markets, was the furor surrounding the casting of Matt Damon in, what some lamented, was the typical “white savior” role. Within China, no one questioned Damon’s role, which was never intended for an Asian or Asian-American actor; indeed, director Zhang was mystified by such a critique.
But there are other, more fundamental reasons why the film might not resonate with a Western — or even a Chinese — audience familiar with Hollywood blockbusters. The protagonists of Hollywood blockbusters are often cynical rebels, dismissive of established governmental authority, like Tony Stark in the Iron Man films, the various other heroes in the Avengers series, or Captain Jack Sparrow in the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise. This is of course not possible in a film about China.
In addition, beyond the joint efforts to defeat the CGI-generated enemy, none of the Chinese characters in The Great Wall show much personality or individualism, certainly no romance or, dare I say, any sexuality. In the single-minded purpose to defend the state, everything else is subordinated. The repressed sexuality in the later scenes between Jing Tian and Matt Damon oddly reminded me of dubbed North Korean films I watched in China thirty years ago, with meaningful looks among committed comrades substituting for genuine human feelings.
After China joined the WTO in 2001, Hollywood interest in China, its market and — eventually — its movie investment money, outright mushroomed. And so did the number of Chinese showing up in Los Angeles each November for the American Film Market, the giant annual gathering of buyers and sellers. Key players in the transpacific film industry picked up the pace of their dance in spring 2012, when Xi Jinping, then China’s vice president, stopped in Los Angeles to meet, among other people, Jeffrey Katzenberg, head of DreamWorks, the makers of the sensational animated Kung Fu Panda film series. Xi, Katzenberg, and then U.S. Vice President Joseph Biden, touted a pact to bring China and Hollywood closer together, to open China’s market to more movies from America and encourage co-productions.
In November 2015, the fifth annual Asia Society U.S. China Film Summit expanded to a full day of discussion and a gala evening that featured as an honoree Zhang Yimou, just then in the thick of what already was being touted as the biggest U.S.-China coproduction ever, The Great Wall. [Disclosure: ChinaFile, for which this author works, is a publication of Asia Society. –Ed.] Fast forward again to February 2016, when, for the first time, more movie tickets sold for more money in China than all the movie tickets sold in North America, signaling that China would, sooner rather than later, become the largest movie market on the planet. In March 2016, Kung Fu Panda III, a U.S.-China co-production, became the highest-grossing animated film China had ever screened.
While other industries (automobiles, drugs, agriculture) and certainly other areas of U.S.-China ties (trade, diplomacy, military-to-military communication, human rights) suffer regular stifling blows, the optimism that is perhaps endemic to the culture of storytelling blooms in the U.S.-China moviemaking relationship.
Trouble is, in the United States, storytellers from all walks of life are able to overcome high hurdles and find support to bring the tough stories about who we are as a people from script to screen and get recognized in the process — 2 Years a Slave comes to mind as a recent example. Meanwhile, leading Chinese independent directors such as Jia Zhangke operate in an environment of tightening censorship in China and can only get real recognition outside their homeland.
Just like Mickey Mouse and Humphrey Bogart before him, Po the Kung Fu Panda will continue to expand the American Dream on foreign shores by telling stories unburdened by censorship. The stories work in so many countries around the world partly because they’re dreamed up by a multi-ethnic Hollywood workforce that first gathered in Southern California in the 1930s, fleeing tyranny in Europe.
Chinese film companies may well play a part in Hollywood for many years to come, but their ability to make and sell movies about China into the heartland of America (still the largest box office on the planet) will be commensurate with: A) American audiences’ willingness to read subtitles and B) Beijing’s ability to let go of control of the medium.
If Chinese filmmakers don’t feel safe telling stories about what it’s like to be Chinese today — not in some long-gone imperial court — or what it’s like to dream in Chinese, then official Beijing will continue to erode any chance of China’s movies establishing a beachhead anywhere outside China, let alone in the most creative moviemaking mecca on the planet. Where, for instance, is the Chinese Blair Witch Project? The Chinese Forest Gump? The Chinese Avatar? Those films surely exist in the heads of filmmakers head in China, but unless they who wish to make them are left to their own devices, Beijing can kiss selling its Chinese Dream to America goodbye.
ROBYN BECK/AFP/Getty Images
Clifford Coonan is a Beijing-based writer focusing on Asia.
Stanley Rosen is a Professor of Political Science at the University of Southern California (USC), specializing in Chinese politics and society.