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May 1,2016

Chinese moviegoers review “Great Wall’: 'messy, mindless, illogical”

One of the most hyped-up film productions of 2016 shaped up to be a box office success and a critical bomb

Quartz, Business Insider and New York Times


Legendary’s “The Great Wall,” directed by Zhang Yimou and starring Matt Damon, was the first genuine co-production between US and Chinese studios, to great benefit to the US side. With a budget of more than $150 million, the fantastical film about fighting monsters on the Great Wall was the largest-ever China-Hollywood coproduction and is being seen as a test of whether event films made in China can become hits in the West.

Hollywood’s Legendary Entertainment (which itself was purchased by China’s Dalian Wanda Group in January, long after the film was well underway) partnered with state-backed China Film Group and China’s Le Vision Pictures to secure filmmaker Zhang Yimou, director of the 2008 Beijing Olympics opening ceremony, to direct, along with a cast of A-list stars from both countries.

The cultural elements? An origin fable about the Great Wall, involving foreign mercenaries who join forces with Chinese militia to defeat the Taotie, dragonlike monsters who jump the titular structure every 60 years to wreak havoc.

It generated $66 million in ticket sales in its opening weekend, making it 2016’s fourth-biggest movie. Yet its strong showing at the box office has been overshadowed by tepid reviews, which could bode poorly for its US release in February, as well as the future of US-China co-productions of its ilk.

Yet, now that the audience reviews are in, the movie might not do so well in weekends to come. The film currently holds a 5.4/10 rating on China’s IMDB-esque film portal, with the over 40% of over 70,000 reviews rating the film either one or two stars out of five.


Bourne and Martian star Matt Damon out to save The Great Wall. Universal Pictures

Many are lamenting the film’s prioritization of style over substance. In particular, some were disappointed with the clumsy merging of mid-rate Hollywood blockbuster storytelling and gratuitous nods to “Chinese culture.”

“The biggest problem is there are too many boring parts, flat characters, a retarded story, and a lack of imagination,” wrote one scathing reviewer. “The Chinese element has basically been reduced to sky lanterns, Chinese military armor, the Great Wall, and other symbols of Eastern culture. It doesn’t use the story to promote traditional Eastern values, it’s all tokens.”

There are certain moments in the movie when you don't know if suddenly the actors forgot they were supposed to be playing characters in ancient China. Modern slang is repeatedly used. One character says "b----" and a few say "I heard that!" Pretty sure neither was around in those days.

Even with its Hollywood pedigree, attracting an audience in U.S. was an uphill battle. Most of the cast consists of unfamiliar Chinese actors, the cultural references will have even less appeal overseas than from within China, and many have questioned why Damon is the star of a film that’s supposed to be about China anyway.

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