Chinese director Zhang Yimou defends casting ‘white man’ Matt Damon as hero in movie set in China

PUBLISHED : Friday, 05 August, 2016, 4:27pm
UPDATED : Friday, 05 August, 2016, 11:07pm

Acclaimed Chinese director Zhang Yimou has responded to criticism from an Asian-American actress over the casting of “white man” Matt Damon as his movie’s lead, saying the role was never conceived for a Chinese actor.

Damon of the “Bourne” franchise will star this year in the US$150 million Chinese-Hollywood fantasy movie The Great Wall, an English-language movie set in China involving menacing supernatural monsters.

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Constance Wu, who stars in a US comedy series centred on immigrants called Fresh Off the Boat, posted on Twitter last week: “We have to stop perpetuating the racist myth that a only (sic) white man can save the world.”

“Our heroes don’t look like Matt Damon,” her post read, citing alternatives such as Pakistani schoolgirl turned Nobel Peace Prize laureate Malala Yousafzai, Indian independence leader Mahatma Gandhi and South African president and anti-apartheid activist Nelson Mandela.

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The Great Wall is Zhang’s first English-language movie. Zhang directed the romantic kungfu drama House of Flying Daggers and the opulent opening and closing ceremonies of the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

“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,” Zhang said in a statement posted on Entertainment Weekly’s website on Thursday.

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“Our film is not about the construction of the Great Wall. 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,” he was quoted as saying.

Zhang said actors portraying the movie’s other four “major heroes” are Chinese.

The casting of Damon has not sparked any controversy in China, where producers are increasingly entering into co-productions with American and other movie makers to improve their filmmaking techniques, and where the government is pushing for Chinese films to be global hits.

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Hollywood has been drawn to China by the country’s deep-pocketed financiers and its box office that is now the world’s second biggest.

The Great Wall will be released in December in China and in early 2017 in other countries, including the United States.