The announcement of noted white actor Matt Damon’s role in the upcoming film The Great Wall was met with a collective groan on the internet in the US as yet another example of Hollywood whitewashing.
Asian-American celebrities like Constance Wu have openly accused the film of racism and many people are with them.
The concerns are reflective of a much larger conversation around diversity in Hollywood — but people in China are celebrating the film because of what it means to have their own actors appearing right beside one of Hollywood’s biggest names.
Unlike in the US, people on Weibo are generally excited about trailer for The Great Wall, with the fans of the Chinese celebrities in the film downright giddy over it.
“The trailer itself already brings an impressive aesthetic,” reads one comment that has been liked for more than 11,000 times. “I’m looking forward to The Great Wall.”
Damon plays a vaguely European mercenary who travels to ancient China to steal the formula for gunpowder, runs into a Chinese army, and decides to team up with it against mysterious monsters.
The story is set around 1,000 years ago, a time when China’s power was equal to the Byzantine Empire in Europe. And history shows that there were real examples of Europeans making the trek to China.
Although a white man got the lead role, his female counterpart is Jing Tian, a Chinese actress. Her casting, along with the fact that the Asian cast largely outnumbers the Americans, serves as a counter to the claim that more white people means more financing for films.
Chinese celebrities appearing in the film are also super important in terms of securing the film’s success in the Chinese market, as China is on track to become the world’s biggest movie market, potentially surpassing North America.
It’s also tricky to apply Hollywood’s very real problems to an international co-production. From a Chinese perspective, people are happy that their homegrown celebrities are “saving the world” with international celebrities and appearing in front of a global audience.
”[…The cast] appeals to all audiences! No matter how absurd the plot sounds, the idea is very fresh, that China gets to save the world too. It’s no longer a Hollywood-exclusive thing,” commented one Weibo user.
People in China, especially millennials, are thrilled that their idols — Lu Han, former member of boy band EXO, and 16-year-old Wang Junkai from TFBoys, a hit Chinese boyband — will be acting in a Hollywood film alongside western stars.
Those two are the main focus of Chinese social media posts gushing about the film. But the other actors from mainland China, Taiwan, and Hong Kong, almost a dozen in all, are also ~a big deal~ for the film’s Chinese-speaking audience.
Wang plays a Chinese emperor of the Northern Song Dynasty, while Lu plays a soldier.
The director’s chair of a big-budget blockbuster is rarely given to a Chinese director — legendary director Zhang Yimou’s movies have been nominated for Best Foreign Language Film at the Oscars three times and is only just now getting this chance.
“In many ways The Great Wall is the opposite of what is being suggested,” Zhang told Entertainment Weekly in response to the criticism towards the film. “For the first time, a film deeply rooted in Chinese culture, with one of the largest Chinese casts ever assembled, is being made at tent pole scale for a world audience. I believe that is a trend that should be embraced by our industry.”
“Our film is not about the construction of the Great Wall,” he continued. “Matt Damon is not playing a role that was originally conceived for a Chinese actor. The arrival of his character in our story is an important plot point. There are five major heroes in our story and he is one of them — the other four are all Chinese.”
If anything, The Great Wall shows just how much influence China has gained in Hollywood.
Legendary East, the main producer, is Legendary Pictures new wing created specifically to partner with China Film, a state-owned studio that all imported films have to work with, according to Forbes.
And it’s certainly a welcome change that a Chinese story is finally being told by someone other than Americans like we saw in the Kung Fu Panda series or Mulan.
And, as a reminder, top-notch Chinese actors have struggled to even get good supporting roles in Hollywood.
Jackie Chan is an exception, but even he was frustrated over being type-cast in roles. Zhang Ziyi, dubbed by Time as “China’s gift to Hollywood” and considered an international superstar in China, is basically a Hollywood D-lister.