Zhang Yimou making his mark in Hollywood

Zhang Yimou is not a man who minces his words when it comes to defending himself.

The acclaimed Chinese film-maker came under fire for pandering to the Westerners in his first English language film, The Great Wall.

Zhang, 65, was also criticised for casting US actor Matt Damon as the lead and accused of "whitewashing", the casting of Caucasian stars in roles that are historically of other ethnicities.

"The Great Wall is a Hollywood production. I was asked to direct it," Zhang told The New Paper over the phone from Beijing.

"This is a Hollywood movie with Zhang Yimou touches."

He added that the film had been in production for many years before it came to him. Edward Zwick of The Last Samurai fame was initially attached to direct it in 2012.

The film is about a mythical legend in which China has to defend itself against marauding monsters called Tao Tei, which invade every 60 years. The Wall was thus built, and armies raised, to defend the country.

Damon plays William, a mercenary who is in China to look for gunpowder.

Along with sidekick Pero (Pedro Pascal), he was captured by The Nameless Order, an army of soldiers stationed at the Wall. While imprisoned, they witness a massive Tao Tei attack.

The Great Wall, which opens here tomorrow, also stars Andy Lau, Willem Dafoe and Chinese starlet Jing Tian.

Zhang, who directed classics such as Red Sorghum (1987) and Raise The Red Lantern (1991), as well as martial arts flicks Hero (2002) and House Of Flying Daggers (2004), said: "Hollywood has always been making such monster invasion movies, such as Jaws and Godzilla.

"There is always a formula - monster attacks, hero rises, they fight, more monsters come, then of course, the hero wins.

"I cannot change the Hollywood formula. I cannot make this movie a pure Zhang Yimou film. Then they won't make it."

The script, which is based on an original tale by Zwick, Max Brooks (World War Z) and Marshall Herskovitz (Jack Reacher: Never Go Back), had already been completed when the project landed on Zhang's lap.

"I only added in more Chinese elements to make it appealing to the Chinese moviegoers.


"I told them that since the story takes place in China, it must be told from the Chinese viewpoint," said Zhang.

He explained that while he had the liberty to incorporate more Chinese details, he had to "stick to the story so that it has the blockbuster feel".

"It was like doing taiji. Compromises were made, and I think I made the most compromises on this film in my entire career," he said.

Zhang was quick to add that compromises "are normal in film-making - it will forever be that way".

At US$150 million ($217 million), The Great Wall is the most expensive and biggest Hollywood-Chinese co-production to date.

Apart from the compromises, Zhang faced challenges in navigating what he called the "United Nations" set.

"We had people from 37 different countries working on this film. Many translators were used. It is good that they are all professionals," he said.

Zhang was able to select his cast, and Damon was his first choice.

"He is my favourite actor. I have watched all his films," Zhang said.

"For a long time, I have wanted to work with him, so this is like a dream come true."

Zhang added that Damon's acting style fits his role well.

"Matt is very manly, and he does action very well," he said.

"And who doesn't want to have Jason Bourne to help save the day?" he added, laughing.


Damon thinks Zhang is 'brilliant'

Matt Damon in The Great Wall.Photo: UIP

Set in an alternate vision of ancient China, The Great Wall film imagines that the Wall was built to defend the country against mythical creatures called Tao Tei, gargoyle-like figures that rise every 60 years to attack in vast, swarming armies and feed on humankind.

The epic film is helmed by Chinese director Zhang Yimou, and stars Matt Damon, Andy Lau, Willem Dafoe, Pedro Pascal and Jing Tian.

Here, Damon, 46, talks about working with Zhang, and how it feels to be China's next big action hero.

How does it feel to be China's next big action hero?

Damon: I hope it all works out that way. It was certainly great to go there and shoot a movie for six months.

It was a great experience and also (by how the) movie business is going, China is such an important market now, that I think we are going to be making a lot of movies there. There will be more of this type of co-productions, and more of these stories that appeal to everyone around the world.

You take on a diverse range of roles, from The Martian to being Bourne again. What drew you to this film?

What drew me was really Zhang Yimou. I have been chasing him for a long time, hoping for a role in one of his movies. I think he is such a brilliant director.

Suddenly I got a call on this project, and I met him. I looked at his drawing and everything he wanted to do with it. The scale of it was so huge that I did not want to pass up the chance to see him paint on that bigger canvas.

How is it like working with such a legendary director?

I have worked with a lot of legendary directors in my life, and I really like it that way.

I found them all to be incredibly humble people, and I really think that the thing great directors have in common is that they are open to the ideas of people around them, and they really collaborate.

Just being able to work with Zhang was a real privilege, which was why everybody showed up.

It was so fun to work with Zhang as he listened to the suggestions that I made. It isn't to say he will take them, but he will always listen and really consider them. It was fun, and it felt like a healthy collaboration.

What was one thing that stood out from working with the international cast and crew?

It was great getting to know them, getting familiar with their works and acting opposite them. They were just fantastic.

There are obviously the ones, such as Andy Lau, whom everyone knows about all over the world. I actually played Andy's character in The Departed (2006), a remake of Andy's Infernal Affairs (2002). We had fun talking about that.


This article was first published on Dec 28, 2016.
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