Almost two months after its release in China, prolific director Zhang Yimou’s historical fantasy epic The Great Wall is set to hit theatres in Western markets. The Great Wall received early criticism in the US, with pundits accusing the inclusion of Matt Damon, Pedro Pascal and Willem Dafoe as further example of whitewashing in Hollywood following last year’s #OscarsSoWhite debate. Despite being a Chinese production, filmed in China with a massive Chinese cast, it’s hard not to see Damon’s character as embodying the ‘white saviour’ trope, a la Dances with Wolves and Avatar. Director Zhang Yimou has defended his casting, however, clarifying that Damon’s, Pascal’s and Dafoe’s roles are those of European mercenaries and were never intended for Chinese actors.
Despite Zhang’s rejection of whitewashing criticism, some netizens on China’s microblogging platform Weibo have denounced the inclusion of American actors as a cheap ploy to appeal to Western markets. For them, such a move undermines the rich and profound culture in the Chinese film industry. Hero, Farwell My Concubine, Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon are all prime examples of refined Chinese filmmaking, all of which drew solely on unique Chinese experiences in their storytelling.
The domestic Chinese reaction to The Great Wall is understandable. As a nation which proudly emphasises its five thousand years of culture, and which has emerged standing tall after periods of turmoil such as the Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolution, there are innumerable stories and experiences to be told without Matt Damon to make it marketable.
Conflict as a source of good drama is a truism not lost in the Chinese experience. China is a nation rampant with contradictions – disparity between rich and poor, promotion of communist core values alongside the shameless expansion of consumer markets – all of which are conducive to the creation of excellent cinema.
There are many examples of distinctly Chinese storytelling in China’s film history. Documentarian Fan Popo’s films Mama Rainbow and Papa Rainbow delve into the unique and at times heart-wrenching experiences of lesbian and gay Chinese youths and their relationships with their families. Albeit censored in the mainland, these documentaries take a genuine approach to the subject matter. Fan Popo isn’t preaching from a pulpit, but rather investigates the abrasive relationship between traditional values and familial importance with raw emotion and great respect for his subjects.
Watching such films, whether a brave examination of LBGT+ culture or an action-filled Canto buddy cop story, allows the viewer to delve into the exceptional circumstances of one-fifth of the global population. In recent years Chinese cinema has largely overcome restrictions placed by the Communist Party to release films from an ever expanding range of genres. Chinese consumption of domestic streaming services such has led to more demand for quality domestic films, a trend evident to anyone who has spent any time in China.
Infiltration of Chinese film into the Australian market is to be welcomed and applauded. Chinese cinema has much to offer the ordinary Australian, opening a window through which we can look into our own backyard – an unprecedented opportunity to listen to the stories of one billion voices.