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The Great Wall, Matt Damon, and the Thing About Chinese Money

The trailer for The Great Wall, starring Matt Damon and directed by Zhang Yimou, dropped yesterday and my first reaction to seeing it:

What. The. Frack?

Why is a white dude in a film about the construction of the Great Wall? And there’s dragons? One of them is voiced by Willem Dafoe? HUH??

“The Chinese helped save Matt Damon from Mars in The Martian, the least he can do is to help them fight dragons”

Not surprisingly, a lot of folks in my Asian American community are pretty peeved about this, and I’m right there with them. Like, who would think this is even a good idea? And so we point our fingers to Hollywood on why Matt Damon is the lead in a film about the construction of the Great Wall, where once again a white guy is shoved into a film about a time and cultural setting where white people weren’t really around?

But this time, Hollywood is actually not to blame (mostly). Because this time, it is the Chinese film industry that is taking charge here. But when you look at the writers and producers involved in this, it doesn’t look like it. You have mainly white writers, producers, and multiple American production companies involved in the creation of this film. Yes, there is Hollywood involvement in this film, but here’s the thing: this is China’s ship all the way.

In most recent years, the Chinese film industry has been buying Hollywood industry folks and American production companies (like Dalian Wanda buying Legendary Pictures for $3.5 billion, which by the way is one of the main production companies for this film) so even if a film has white producers, writers, and American production companies involved, if there is the presence of China Film Corp (which this film has) or anything similar, you know that this is all China. Hollywood doesn’t run the show here, China does. And this is only the beginning.

As such, we must truly take into scope the sheer power of the Chinese film industry and their vast financial strength that dwarfs the size of any major American film production companies like Sony, 20th Century Fox, Warner Brothers, etc. They are the ones who are making the decisions here.

Diversity isn’t a concern at all for them at this point. Nor is, many times, a complex story. It is primarily about figures, loud spectacles, and simplistic plots and while that doesn’t sound TOO different from Hollywood, Asian Americans expect the Chinese film industry to understand the problems of the nonexistent Asian lead. They may understand one day, but at this time, they simply don’t care.

Now, can we at least blame Matt “whitesplaining” Damon for taking on this part? [Ed. note: He is the expert on casting for diversity after all!] We must first take into account that Matt Damon is so popular in China that that this film will break box office takings bigger than any US market. There are 1.3 billion Chinese and for a majority, their favorite pastime is going to the movies, especially American ones with a “big” name. Money talks. It is all about a good deal and if it makes a profit for the film, it is a good deal. No investors will put their millions on the line for any no name actor, be they white or Chinese. And thus, because Damon is such a big star there, they will cast him to be the lead in the film. If I was in Matt’s position, to say no to being the lead in the biggest Chinese blockbuster yet in terms of budget would be absolutely stupid. As an actor, I have to at least admit that much, even if the Asian American activist side of me is yelling at my brain and going “YOU MONSTER.”

So although I’m laughing my ass off and crying simultaneously at a white guy being the lead in a film about the Great Wall, I cannot blame Matt Damon for taking the role. Or Hollywood. Or even the Chinese film industry for making this all possible.

The SEVERAL positives I can think of is that because it’s a Zhang Yimou film, it will be absolutely gorgeous to look at. And Andy Lau is one of the leads and he’s awesome. So more American exposure for him once this film comes out in the States is a good thing.

And that’s all I can think of for now.

The Chinese film industry has been financing a good number of American studio features in the past few years and some of the most obvious way to tell if there’s Chinese money involved is if you can spot the gorgeous/handsome Chinese actors (i.e. Independence Day: Resurgence, TMNT: Out of the Shadows, Mission: Impossible — Rogue Nation, etc.) in the film where they have major prominence in the scenes but not that many lines. These roles they were placed in these films to ensure that American studios get Chinese financing.

Now what does having all these Asian faces mean for Asian American actors in general? Nothing substantial actually. Unless you’re a handsome/gorgeous Chinese actor who can speak fluent Mandarin and have a Chinese passport. So don’t expect China to help Asian American actors in their cause to get better representation, we must look elsewhere (or better yet, ourselves).

I know I’m kinda being rough on the Chinese film industry here but the thing is, I can’t blame them for what they’re doing. It’s incredibly effective, smart, and they certainly have in mind for the long-term goal of having their own people take bigger spotlights inch by inch. And I know with a few people working in that world, that change IS happening where diversity will be seen in a more effective and positive manner. But for right now, once again, diversity and major Asian representation as leads is not the major concern for the Chinese film industry.

I’ll end this article with a horrible confession: the idea of Matt Damon fighting Chinese monsters with Willem Dafoe voicing the main baddie dragon all wrapped in beautiful Zhang Yimou imagery sounds incredibly appealing to me. I may even just buy a ticket because I’m intrigued by this. Oh God.


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