US-China Today spoke with Beijing-based producer Sally Yeh about the recent film, “The Great Wall,” and the reaction of audiences to its controversial casting choices.
The Great Wall was released in the U.S. this month as the most expensive film to be shot entirely in China with a budget of $150 million. A co-production between the U.S.’s Atlas Entertainment and China’s Legendary Entertainment, this epic historical fiction film is directed by one of the most prominent Chinese directors, Zhang Yimou, who also directed Hero (2002) and House of Flying Daggers (2004). Set in the Song dynasty in medieval China, the film sparked controversy amongst American audiences because caucasian actor, Matt Damon, stars as the protagonist supported by a Chinese cast. US-China Today spoke to Sally Yeh, a Beijing-based Chinese American producer, about the reactions regarding the film trailer from its American and Chinese audiences, as well as the significance of this movie for the future of U.S.-China co-productions.
I’ve been in China for 13 years and [China] has gone through so many phases in the film business. Where it is now is that China is looking outwards and looking for Hollywood partners to work with, like Alibaba and Wanda. They’re all making presence in L.A. They are still somewhat in an experimental phase because they have never really worked with big Hollywood studios before – this is all really new. There have been some co-productions before, but now they’re really getting involved in the financing and creative side as well, and having said that, they really have to look at two different markets.
When they look at the U.S. market, obviously, these actors from China are not recognized there, and so it makes sense for them to hire someone who’s recognized from China and also very well-liked in the U.S. Also, the whole film is not based on reality; it’s based on fantasy. The Great Wall doesn’t have a monster. So it really transcends the question of whether you need to have a Caucasian or Chinese actor because the whole story is fictitious. It’s not real.
You said you saw the trailer of the film. Based off of that, how do you think Chinese audiences will react to the movie in comparison to American and Asian-American audiences?
Speaking as an Asian American, I know there are sensitivities in having this Asian or Chinese backdrop with someone else in the forefront. It just doesn’t make any sense [to us]. For the Chinese audiences, however, I think they see it as a film, and they think, “Ok, Zhang Yimou is making a movie with Matt Damon in it.” It’s interesting. It’s a big spectacle film, it’s large, it’s expensive, and again, Matt is really well-loved here. He has quite a lot of fans in the world and in China, so I think they see it more in an entertaining kind of way as opposed to having any sort of message. Having said this, different people have voices and opinions, and I think China is very sensitive in terms of, “this is how they see it.” It’s kind of reactionary. I don’t think they themselves were prepared for this reaction, and often this is the case in this country where things happen and then the masses and the media will have some kind of reaction. That’s completely unpredictable to the Chinese, and when they see it, they start to grow concerned.
So you’re saying that the Chinese audience may react more to the reactions of the global media than to the movie itself?
I think it might be more of the industry than it is the Chinese audience. The Chinese audience sees the trailer for what it is–a potentially entertaining film, a big epic. When it comes to the industry and the people that are involved, and they’re getting this kind of response from [the U.S. and in particular, Asian Americans], they are more careful. And I think further up, possibly at a government level, they don’t want to pander to the West and say [Westerners] are better. I don’t think that was the message at all; I don’t think that was their intention. That wouldn’t make sense for China to say, we as the majority of this country, would put someone of another nationality above us.
You mentioned the Chinese audience just see it as entertainment. Why do you think they think that way rather than how the Asian American audiences react more critically?
I think the Chinese audience, because they live in China, where everyone else is Chinese, do not see themselves as a minority. They don’t see other races as necessarily being less or more. That kind of political thinking doesn’t exist.
Do you have any idea/why do you think Matt Damon was chosen for the lead role? Do you think the Chinese audiences perceive the casting as a racial issue?
There’s been a couple of phases in China. China has gone through quite a few evolutionary cycles in film. The first was after the Cultural Revolution. It was mainly propaganda, about what they want people to think in terms of the way the government is set up. Following that, there has been a whole cultural reveal. Once they got past the propaganda, they started to explain what is Chinese. And some of these films, for example, earlier works by Zhang Yimou – were banned. And subsequent to that is where there’s been a shift, particularly in the 90’s. Stage 3 would be about commercialism or box office results. The following phase would be experimentalism; it’s China trying to break out of the cultural reveal. They’re trying to find out what they can say in film. There’s this period, more in the early 2000’s, when people started to make films that they just felt like making, and that was the best time for the China box office, in my opinion, even though it was not as big as it is now. But it was time when filmmakers were trying to push boundaries. And then just recently, it’s what I call copy and paste. It’s so hard to [get good] screenwriters, and this is the world over, [but] particularly in China. It’s so hard and takes so long to get a great script. And with all the censorship, and all these things to consider, it’s hard to get a person who really understands how to write a commercial screenplay, something that’s really sellable. They are now starting to do a lot of copy and paste, which means buying rights from a Hollywood film and then make a Chinese version, and it works. Amongst all of that is the whole East-West meeting, and they’re looking at all the A-list actors because now they can afford them. Matt is one actor that is very friendly, very affable, and very relatable. He’s also Jason Bourne, so he’s an action star. He fits this role. They wanted an action star to play very well.
Do you think the movie has garnered a lot of interest in the U.S.? What makes this movie different from the many Chinese movies that have premiered in the U.S. before, but failed?
Nothing previously was made to the taste of American appeal. For example, comedy never really crosses. There hasn’t been that great of a track record with major Chinese films other than maybe Fearless and Crouching Tiger, again martial arts-related. The Nicholas Cage film did horribly but it was not well made, so as with any poorly made film crossing into another market, it’s going to create a stigma. It’s going to cause people in the U.S. to think, “Aw, another Chinese film, must suck,” and that’s going to go against the way any future Chinese film is perceived. Now having said that, if this is a really well-made film, people are going to go and watch it. With everyone talking on blogs, on the Internet, on social media–they’re going to watch it and tell people that it’s a really good one and then those people are going to watch it. For sure, you’re going to have Matt Damon fans watching it in the U.S. So those people could be very disappointed or could speak up in saying this one is really great Chinese film.
Do you think this is an important film from a business perspective and/or creative perspective?
I think every film is really important. Even if it doesn’t do well, it is a representation of society and a representation of change of our world.
In future US-China film cooperations, will the Great Wall set a precedent?
I think it has already set a precedent. In the way that there’s so much attention, and so many different opinions about it just based on the trailer, that alone is quite a bit of publicity. So that has set a precedent. In a statement, Wanda has said that they want it to be seen as the ultimate coproduction. It’s very difficult to make a great coproduction that appeals to both sides of the world. So they are actually making the statement that they think it will cross over.
I think there are definitely more stories that are perhaps more organic, but we just haven’t seen them yet. They are very much in development right now, and it could take anywhere from 3 years to 30 years. But they have to spend ten years in development. And at China’s pace, it can’t have that. It’s just not comprehensible to them that film as an art form would take that long to incubate because they see it more as a business. And so that’s the thing that’s, I think, going to happen between China and the U.S. is the commercialism, the art and the business, how the three mix on top of the cultural differences between the East and the West. So you don’t really just have an East and a West issue here, you also have the intention. Because when you are making a film that is also trying to make money and also be an art form, the message is just not really clear. And if you look at really successful franchise films in the U.S., they are based on comic books or something that’s very relatable and they build upon that. But in the U.S., there has been more than a hundred years of doing this. So it’s transformed and it’s very detailed in terms of what they are doing, the people all get very involved and they are passionate. Those are the things that I think will take a while for China to get to that mental level.
China’s movie industry is new and it’s young, and so they have to start from scratch. But if you start a company anywhere in the U.S., you are going to bring in experienced people with ten, twenty or thirty years of experience. It’s a huge difference. One of the things that I often hear is that Chinese companies are hiring people in their thirties, which I think is great, but it’s not a tech company. It’s not just about how the young people think and how they want technology to help them and improve lives or entertain them. It’s about storytelling. And if you look at Hollywood, you’ve got people that are 18 to 80. So if you have a company with people who are at most 40, you probably have a bit of an issue. It gets too one-dimensional.
You have to go beyond that, you have to go deeper. That isn’t something you can do overnight. [You have to learn] through making mistakes, through failing, and as time goes on, eventually you have people who are more diverse in this area and from working with people from the West, [and] they are going to gain experience through them. I remember especially in the mid 2000s people were wondering whether Beijing would be the next Hollywood, and I just say, “I don’t think that’s going to happen.” China doesn’t have the diversity like other parts of the world, nor do we have the legacy in any other part of the world to have some other location to replace Hollywood. And the diversity of the people really [does] help create something new. You have different people [with] different opinions and from different backgrounds, and [when] they are collaborating, that’s pushing boundaries, and that only happens in L.A.
China definitely has potential, but they have to find their voice. And it really just take one individual, like Ang Lee, to do it. It’s a combination of many things, but if we are talking about a director, we’re really just talking about someone with a vision, and China is a place that would definitely support someone with that kind of vision.