IFE Film Review: Martial arts-monster mash-up The Great Wall is great

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When I first heard that the the biggest director in China – Zhang Yimou, the Fifth Generation master behind such Oscar-nominated classics as Ju Dou, Raise the Red Lantern, and Hero – was directing whiter-than-white Matt Damon in an epic, period monster movie set in China entitled The Great Wall, the words “white savior narrative” came quickly to mind. And although I love Damon as an actor and have been a huge fan of Yimou’s since my film school days, I decided that perhaps the best way to protest the release of yet another Hollywood-ized “whitey-saves-the-insert-ethnic-group-here” blockbuster was to boycott the film entirely. Then I caught Wall’s longer, more nuanced pre-DVD release trailer online last week and totally caved.

Wall isn’t perfect, but I’m happy to report that Yimou hasn’t watered down his patented blend of high drama and wildly-cinematic Chinese Wuxia (martial arts) set-pieces one bit in his first English-language epic. And while Damon is indeed white and heroic, at the end of the day, his character is the one who ends up getting schooled in the art of Song Dynasty-era monster slaying by Wall’s many badass Chinese characters (including one who is also a woman!) so, I can live with that.

Opening with a band of European mercenaries led by William (Damon) and Tovar (Pedro Pascal from Netflix’s Narcos) making their way across China in search of Chinese black powder, Wall ups the ante fairly early on when the team encounters a deadly monster in a cave. Although most of the men are killed in the battle, William slices one of the creature’s arms off, which allows him and Tovar to make their escape. Taking the arm with them, the pair are then quickly captured by Chinese soldiers and taken to the Great Wall where they are interrogated by General Shao (Zhang Hanyu), the leader of a top-secret military group known as The Nameless Order.

Things look grim for William and Tovar until the Order’s no-nonsense second-in-command, Commander Lin Mae (Kong: Skull Island’s Jing Tian) and her cohort, Strategist Wang (played by Hong Kong superstar Andy Lau), discover the severed monster arm in William’s belongings and decide to fill the pair in on the secrets of the Nameless Order. Commissioned by the Imperial Court, the order is divided up into five highly-specialized troops of soldiers, all of whom have been training their entire lives to fight the monsters that William and Tovar encountered in the cave, which are called Tao Tei.

Still with me? Well, hang in there because it gets a whole lot crazier. Originating from a giant green meteor that crashed into the mountains nearby more than 2,000 years ago, the Tao Tei rise every 60 years as punishment for the then-Emperor’s greed and endless thirst for power, to do battle with the Nameless Order for dominion over all of China. But before William and Tovar can even begin to digest that whopper of a backstory, the wall is besieged once again by hordes of blood-thirsty Tao Tei and the pair are forced to either run for their lives, with all the ill-gotten black powder they can carry, or stay and fight beside their newfound friends.

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 Fun, fast-paced and literally bursting with wild splashes of color and gore – the stunningly-choreographed acrobatics of the Nameless Order’s Crane Troop have to be seen to be believed. Trust me, you’ve never seen anything like it! – Yimou cements his unofficial title as the “Steven Spielberg of China” with this rousingly entertaining popcorn movie extravaganza.

Rumored to be the most expensive international film shot in mainland China with a budget of roughly $150 million, Wall was a Chinese-Hollywood co-production straight down the line with a bang-up story and script by six of Hollywood’s hottest scribes (including Rogue One’s Tony Gilroy and Shakespeare in Love Oscar-winner Ed Zwick) with even the cinematography chores being shared by acclaimed UK lenser Stuart Dryburgh (The Piano) and Oscar-nominated Chinese director of photography Xiaoding Zhao (The House of Flying Daggers). And though the film was slammed by critics and audiences in all corners of the world – except for China, ironically, where it was a massive hit – the eye-poppingly gorgeous spectacle of Wall definitely deserves another shot inflight. And seriously, if this is what truly international, mega-budget co-productions look like, then sign me up!

Now playing on select Lufthansa, EVA Air and Singapore Airlines flights worldwide, The Great Wall is also available via streaming on Amazon Video, Google Play, and iTunes.

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