Zhang Yimou, the legendary director of House of Flying Daggers and Raise the Red Lantern, has responded to the backlash against the trailer for his upcoming monster movie The Great Wall. The trailer featured Matt Damon (and Game of Thrones' Pedro Pascal) going to battle with some screaming monster things atop the Great Wall. Because the film is set 1,000 years ago in China, many viewers wondered why on earth it would have a white protagonist.
zhang says most of the film's heroes are Chinese
Sacrificing all realism to put a white superstar in the leading role of a film is a common crime in Hollywood — see Gods of Egypt, Ghost in the Shell, or Disney's Pan just for recent examples — but Zhang claims that's not what is happening here.
Today, Zhang told Entertainment Weekly that Damon is not the central hero of the film and in fact he is only one of a five-person team — the other four are Chinese. You can read his full statement on Entertainment Weekly, but here's the key portion:
Matt Damon is not playing a role that was originally conceived for a Chinese actor. The arrival of his character in our story is an important plot point. There are five major heroes in our story and he is one of them — the other four are all Chinese.
While this is certainly reassuring, it doesn't change the fact that Damon is the only member of this team that is prominently featured in the trailer. He's also the only face on the film's poster. So what? Well, with an estimated budget between $135 and $160 million, The Great Wall is the most expensive collaboration between US and Chinese cinema to date, and it's likely that every stage of its production and release will set a precedent going forward. Damon's omnipresence in the US film industry and huge international hits like the Bourne series make him obvious marketing gold, but if Hollywood declares Chinese actors unmarketable now, it becomes a vicious cycle — they'll never have the necessary exposure to be the top-billed stars.
During the initial backlash Fresh Off the Boat star Constance Wu wrote on Twitter, "we have to stop perpetuating the racist myth that only a white man can save the world." This trailer certainly does give that impression. Damon is in almost every shot, and there's no way to know that the film also features heroes who "don't look like Matt Damon," as Wu mentioned in her tweet.
Can we all at least agree that hero-bias & "but it's really hard to finance" are no longer excuses for racism? TRY pic.twitter.com/mvNet5PrtH— Constance Wu (@ConstanceWu) July 29, 2016
Of course the final cut of the film's trailer was probably not Zhang's call. It's simply another stinging example of Hollywood's inane insistence that it can't market a big-budget film around a non-white person. The fact that Damon — one of the world's most successful and influential movie stars — has personally struggled to comprehend issues of diversity in Hollywood in the past only adds to the frustration. Hopefully the film itself really will be as balanced as Yimou says!
However, even outside of the controversy of Damon's casting, we have some burning questions about this movie. For example: how would a giant wall defend anyone from dragons?