Does ‘The Great Wall’ represent whitewashing of Asian cinema?

A recent movie trailer created a huge uproar on social media. But unfortunately it is not because of an exceptionally good story, acting or special effects. This time the controversy was triggered because a white actor is playing the lead role in a Chinese movie.

The trailer of the blockbuster movie “The Great Wall” depicts ancient China and the Chinese army fighting a threatening creature. The movie features Matt Damon and Andy Lau among other actors. However, Matt Damon’s role has attracted fierce criticism among certain groups on the social media. The consensus among the critics was obvious: Why do we always need a white guy to save the world? The Guardian has pointed out that the discussion is directly linked with a more general awareness about the lack of representation of Asian characters in popular culture.

In fact, it is not only that Asian actors find themselves underrepresented in American or European cinema, or what we call the “West”, but Chinese or Asian cinema overall hardly finds its way into these markets. However, Asian cinema is not alone in facing this problem. Hollywood has a habit of producing remakes of popular European movies, in order to adjust them to the taste of US audiences and therefore neglecting certain cultural features, which were present in the original movie. Prominent examples are the French movie “Anthony Zimmer”, the Dutch movie “De Lift” and the French-German movie “Der Himmel über Berlin”.

Recent casting decisions by big Hollywood studios created bewilderment worldwide. For example American actress Scarlet Johansson was casted for the leading role of a real-live movie adaption of the “Ghost in the Shell”, a Japanese anime movie, already considered as a modern classic of this genre. In the original, the main character is Asian (or precisely a cyborg with Asian features). The decision to cast a white actor to represent an Asian character led to accusations that Hollywood is whitewashing popular culture.

However, in the case of “The Great Wall”, the public outcry and hysteria comes a bit too early. All we know now about the movie is that the Great Wall is beleaguered by a mysterious creature and defended by an imperial Chinese army of which the characters of Matt Damon, Willem Defoe and Pedro Pascal are part of. Until we know more about the story and why a “white guy” is taking part in it, we can only speculate.

This is very much unlike “Ghost in the Shell”, where we already know that the story is set in a fictional Japanese city at sometime in a rather dystopian future. Here we know it is Asian characters and not Westerners who take the leading roles. Therefore it is pretty incomprehensible why the producers have chosen a white actress to play an Asian character.

Nevertheless “Ghost in the Shell” and “The Great Wall” are two different stories, because the heart of the controversy is different. While the rights of the live action “Ghost in the Shell” movie were bought by DreamWorks, it qualifies as a 100% US movie, things are a little bit different in the case of the upcoming Zhang Yimou blockbuster.

What we see with Zhang’s approach is the attempt to create a synergy between established Western brands or actors (like Matt Damon and Willem Defoe) and use them as a transmission vehicle to bring China to global audiences. So while from the outside it looks like a white-guy-saves-the-world plot, in fact it is a way to showcase China. Zhang takes a Western guy as a narrator, who more relates to Western audiences, but tells a Chinese story.

Zhang Yimou already has some experience in doing “synergetic” movies. His war-movie “Flowers of War” featured prominently Christian Bale as the leading character. Awareness in the US and Europe was very high, though the movie received poor reviews (approval rates lower than 50%).

However, a movie with a similar setting but without famous Western actors in the leading roles “The City of Life and Death” received very positive reviews (with approval ratings of about 91%), but had zero awareness by European or American audiences.

Zhang’s movie is therefore somewhat also connected with an overall “going-out” approach of Chinese cultural products. In order to reach a wider audience also in the West, ethnic diversity in blockbuster movies is a necessity nowadays.

So, “The Great Wall” is not whitewashing Asian cinema. It is more related to the questions of ethnic representation in increasingly diverse and globalized societies. It highlights the question of the origin of certain cultural products and absorption by other cultures.


The author is a Beijing-based freelance writer.

(Opinions expressed in the article don't represent those of the

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