Monday, 16 January 2017

Great Wall (4 Stars)

I was very excited to hear that this film would be shown in the cinema. Zhang Yimou is one of my favourite directors, second only to Sion Sono. I own every film of his that has been released in English or German. I prefer English releases because they're subtitled, whereas the German releases are dubbed, but some of his films have only been released in Germany. Unfortunately, about half of his films are only available in Chinese. That's a pity. Even his first film, "Red Sorghum", made with a small budget in 1987, is a brilliant piece of art. In the years before 2013 when I rarely went to the cinema I always made sure I saw his films on the big screen. I saw "House of Flying Daggers" in 2004, "Hero" in 2005 and "Curse of the Golden Flower" in 2007. ("Hero" was released in 2002, but it wasn't shown in the UK until three years later). Since then there has been nothing. Zhang Yimou made another five films, and I've managed to buy three of them on Blu-ray, but none of them were shown in UK cinemas.

"Great Wall" is a departure from his usual subject matter, though not from his style. His films are usually romantic epics. Not all of them are love stories in the conventional sense. Often the romance is understated; we can see that two characters have feelings for one another, but their different social positions or their Chinese sense of dignity prevent them putting their feelings into words. In this film there's only a very slight hint of feelings between General Lin Mei (Jing Tian) and the English mercenary William Garin (Matt Damon). An American director would have ruined the film by letting the two share kisses or even more in between the battles, but Zhang Yimou is aware that no Chinese noblewoman would sully herself by engaging in a romance with a foreigner.

The film is about five foreign mercenaries who have travelled to China after hearing about a mysterious new invention which will revolutionise war: gunpowder. It isn't clearly stated when the film takes place, but based on a few clues it must be round about 900 A.D. While camping in the mountains three of the mercenaries are killed by an unfamiliar wild animal. William and his comrade Pero Tovar slay the animal and take its arm with them, hoping to ask someone what sort of creature it is. When they arrive at the Great Wall they're captured, but the Chinese are astounded that they had managed to kill the creature. It's a Tao Tie, one of a horde of creatures that attack once every 60 years. The Wall has been built to keep them out of the Chinese cities.

What follows is a fantasy epic. The highly intelligent Tao Tie, led by their queen, make repeated attempts to storm the Wall and climb over it to overrun China. It's also a tale of redemption. William comes to realise that his whole life of fighting for money has been worthless. He's overwhelmed by the nobility of the Chinese soldiers, and he decides that protecting China from attack is more important than his initial intention to steal gunpowder and make more money as a soldier.

When William and Tovar arrive Lin Mae is the commander of one of the five divisions of the Chinese army. She's the only person who can speak English (or whatever language was spoken in England at the time) because she's learnt it from a soldier who has lived with them for the last 25 years. After the death of the general in the first attack of the Tao Tie she's promoted to general and leads all the Chinese forces. This is probably an anachronism; I couldn't imagine a woman leading male troops in medieval China.

We briefly meet the Emperor of the Chinese Song Dynasty. He's a cowardly teenager, more interested in having fun with his concubines than affairs of state. Can you blame him? Boys will be boys. He's played by Karry Wang, well known in China as the leader of the boy band TF Boys. He was 15 at the time the film was made.

I had never heard of Jing Tian before watching the film, but she's evidently a very popular actress in China. She's attempting a breakthrough into the American market. She will appear in "Kong: Skull Island" and the sequel to "Pacific Rim".

After watching "Great Wall" today I consider it to be a very good film, but not up to the standard of his previous films. The emotional depth is missing that I've grown to love in his films. It's an interesting experiment, to prove that he's capable of making an action fantasy film, but I hope he'll return to what he does best.

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