The most significant developing story in the film world continues to be the evolving presence and influence of China and the Chinese movie industry. The country's audiences have developed a taste for big-budget Hollywood blockbusters to rival any in the United States, but China's cultural traditions and the deeply-ingrained involvement of the Chinese government have proven difficult both to Hollywood studios looking the penetrate the market and U.S. filmmakers seeking collaborations.
However, the latter situation is looking to be challenged by Zhang Yimou's The Great Wall: a historical China fantasy blockbuster filmed in the English language with a Hollywood blockbuster budget and an international superstar cast led by Matt Damon. A teaser trailer for the film has now been released, along with first look images from the upcoming tentpole.
Originally conceived by Legendary Pictures boss Thomas Tull and writer Max Brooks as a showcase project for the Legendary East division, The Great Wall was originally meant to star Henry Cavill and Benjamin Walker as traveling British soldiers who learn the secret history of The Wall while in China, with Glory and The Last Samurai helmer Edward Zwick set to direct. That version stalled, only to be reborn in its current form with heavier involvement by the Chinese film industry, a greater focus on cultural authenticity and an international cast including popular Chinese actors like Andy Lau and Kong: Skull Island's Jing Tian but also Damon and Willem Dafoe, as well as Game of Thrones and Narcos star, Pedro Pascal.
Historically, it's known that The Great Wall of China was constructed over many centuries by uniting earlier fortresses and fortifications in order to defend Chinese territories against nomadic raiders from the Eurasian Steppe (principally but not exclusively the Mongolians); an undertaking set into motion by King Zheng, the First Emperor of the Qin Dynasty around 221 BCE. However, The Great Wall (as evidenced by the teaser trailer, above) imagines a different, more fantastical explanation for the massive construction: A battle fortress created to repel not human invaders, but an attack by rampaging monsters of ancient Chinese mythology.
Check out the first images from The Great Wall (courtesy of EW), below:
Much of The Great Wall is still being kept under wraps, including the origins and appearance of the monster antagonists - having been compared at various points to everything from Pacific Rim's Kaiju to the title characters of the Transformers movies (only one relatively small-scale creature is seen, briefly, in the trailer - though Damon appears about to confront something much larger at the very end). And while Yimou isn't ready to reveal them, he does indicate that a great deal of thought has gone into creating them, while speaking to EW:
"The film takes place about 1,000 years ago. At its core, it is a period piece and an action film. The fantasy element does play a major role because of the monsters. But, what makes our film unique is that these are ancient Chinese monsters. Even though it’s a fantasy movie, we filmed it in a very realistic way. We want it to feel like the events actually happened. Other than the monster, all aspects of this film are backed by either scientific or historical research."
The director, a legendary figure best known in the U.S. for martial arts epics like Hero and House of Flying Daggers (and as the maestro behind the opening ceremonies of the Beijing Olympics), goes on to indicate that while an international co-production creates many challenges, effort was made at all times to preserve a uniquely Chinese voice within the blockbuster trappings:
"I don’t understand English, so a lot of time is spent on communication. It takes three times longer to get anything done. When I mentioned before that time was an issue on this film, I wasn’t even counting the time it takes for translation.
"This script was written by American screenwriters. So the story is really told from an American’s perspective. When I came onboard, I wanted to make sure everything Chinese in this film feels genuine."
While many U.S. film fans are only just discovering that the project exists, industry-watchers have been monitoring The Great Wall intensely for clues to the future of China's influence on the international film market. While Chinese audiences are hungry for FX-driven Hollywood fare, the lack (until recently) of American pop-culture presence on the Mainland has meant that reliable properties like Star Wars have performed under expectations - while a film like Warcraft (a box office flop in the U.S.) was a major hit. The Great Wall represents China's first concerted effort to market a blockbuster grounded largely in its own heritage and starpower to the rest of the world - and it remains to be seen what the end result will look like.
The Great Wall opens in China and U.S. theaters on February 17th, 2017.