The first trailer for the long-in-development blockbuster The Great Wall arrived last week, and with it came controversy. The film takes place in Ancient China and revolves around the “true” story behind the building of the Great Wall—it was constructed to keep supernatural creatures out. The trailer showcases the film’s lead, Matt Damon, a white American fighting alongside Chinese soldiers, and subsequently some folks began to decry the decision to make the hero of this unreservedly Chinese film a white dude.
Well now the film’s director, acclaimed Chinese filmmaker Zhang Yimou—the guy behind Hero and the stunning opening ceremonies for the Beijing Olympics—has spoken out, explaining the situation in a statement to EW:
In many ways The Great Wall is the opposite of what is being suggested. For the first time, a film deeply rooted in Chinese culture, with one of the largest Chinese casts ever assembled, is being made at tent pole scale for a world audience. I believe that is a trend that should be embraced by our industry. Our film is not about the construction of the Great Wall. 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. The collective struggle and sacrifice of these heroes are the emotional heart of our film. As the director of over 20 Chinese language films and the Beijing Olympics, I have not and will not cast a film in a way that was untrue to my artistic vision. I hope when everyone sees the film and is armed with the facts they will agree.
Some strong words, and he’s not wrong. This culture of making knee-jerk assumptions about a movie before anyone’s actually seen it is becoming more and more frustrating, and as Yimou says, the cast is filled out with a bevy of Chinese performers. Moreover, adding Matt Damon to the cast in a central role is precisely what allows Yimou and the film’s producers to create a Chinese film on such a large scale, given that the studios are more willing to ante up when there’s a movie star known the world over to help sell it across the globe.
And yet, at the same time, there is a strong tendency to cast the white guy as “the good guy” in major Hollywood films (Damon is the only actor on the poster), which leads to the inherent assumption that “white guy = good guy” the world over. Is this the case in The Great Wall? We have no idea, we haven’t seen the movie yet. I’m more than willing to hold off judgment until I’ve actually seen the thing, and it’s promising to know that The Great Wall was developed from a ground up as a co-production with China, enlisting a renowned Chinese filmmaker to take the helm.
So while we can acknowledge that there is a trend towards white males serving as heroic protagonists in the vast majority of major studio blockbusters, let’s cool our jets re: The Great Wall until we can make an informed decision. The film opens in theaters on February 17, 2017.