We finally allowed ourselves to watch Zhang Yimou’s The Great Wall. I have seen worse films in the genre (I’d argue it was probably no worse than Cowboys and Aliens, for example.) The flick gave us an opportunity to resuscitate the debate surrounding Zhang’s choice of Matt Damon to play a lead role.
If Zhang made the controversial selection in order to curry favor with US distributors, what he did was no more or less objectionable than the creative compromises Hollywood makes daily to ensure success in the China market. Chinese auteurs are learning that they must not only contend with government oversight of their productions, but that they must also strike a balance between the aesthetic and the marketable.
Creative compromises are rarely good things, but they are an indelible part of the cinematic landscape until filmmakers no longer need to depend on others for finance, distribution, and marketing.
It is worth remembering that identity-shifting actors have been a feature of Chinese entertainment for many years as well. For centuries, men played the roles of women in Beijing opera. And to give a personal example: my Chinese father-in-law, now 87, spent much of his career as an actor playing foreigners onstage and in film. In fact, one of his career highlights was playing Canadian doctor Norman Bethune in “whiteface.” (There’s a picture around here, somewhere, and I’ll post it if I can find it.) I mention this because it points to a different set of sensitivities in China around matters of race and gender portrayal in entertainment than those to which we subject filmmakers in the US.
Indeed, Damon’s role may hint at a tiny crack of light in the otherwise depressing China media landscape. The very fact that authorities greenlit the movie with a western star playing a role that could have gone to a Chinese face, represents a tiny degree of forward thinking among filmmakers and censors in an industry where the forces of progress are fighting a rearguard action against reactionaries.
The movie itself aside, I would argue that we should see Damon’s inclusion as reflecting both an interesting creative choice on the part of the director, and a recognition on the part of authorities that China cannot build a globally successful film industry without injecting wider relevance into the subject matter.
The real concern, then, is not that we are going to see a decline in the number of leading roles for Asians in global cinema. Global demographics and organic trends in Hollywood suggest the opposite is as likely to be the case. The concern, rather, is that the Chinese are learning the rules of the market quite quickly, and that they will be contending with the Hollywood studios sooner than Hollywood realizes.