Great expectations for China-US megamovie The Great Wall

Is monsters-versus-medieval Chinese army fantasy directed by Zhang Yimou the start of something big, and could it be a box office bomb?

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 09 July, 2015, 4:41pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 09 July, 2015, 8:18pm

More than four years ago, just as China's movie market was starting to boom, the executive producer behind blockbusters The Dark Knight, The Hangover and Man of Steel was casting about for a concept that might particularly suit Chinese audiences and gain a worldwide audience.

Thomas Tull's fanboy imagination wandered to the Great Wall. What if, he wondered, the iconic edifice was built not to keep out hordes of Mongolians and other human invaders but to defend against fantastic monsters?

That was in 2010, when China's annual box office receipts were a mere US$1.5 billion, compared with US$4.8 billion last year. Even with the market growing at a rapid clip, the notion of shooting a big-budget, English-language film set hundreds of years ago in China - and based on an original American script with no built-in fan base - seemed like a fanciful business proposition.

But that is exactly what Tull's Legendary Entertainment is now in the midst of doing.

Tull recruited China's most famous director, Zhang Yimou, to head the US$150 million project and enlisted powerful investors including state-run China Film Group and LeVision Pictures.

Matt Damon and Hong Kong superstar Andy Lau Tak-wah are anchoring a cast peppered with Chinese heartthrobs who appeal to young Chinese women.

The Great Wall will soon move into postproduction with intensive visual-effects work in preparation for a November 2016 release. It is one of the highest-budget films ever made in China, and featured months of shooting on 28 sets in Beijing and on an elaborate faux wall constructed in Qingdao, Shandong, making it the biggest US-China co-production to date.

If The Great Wall proves to be a global blockbuster, it could serve as a model of cross-Pacific collaboration for years to come - and position Legendary as a powerful player in what is soon to be the world's largest movie market. But if it flops, it may be a dispiriting signal that the long-sought goal of bringing Hollywood and Chinese talents together is beyond even one of the most astute operators in the industry.

Anticipation is running high in China. Zhang, Damon and Lau - along with other cast members including Pedro Pascal (Oberyn Martell on HBO's Game of Thrones) and Chinese actress Jing Tian - recently sat for the first of what are sure to be numerous media events to stoke interest in the film.

There aren't that many other films that meet the standards for co-productions - with a largely Chinese cast, Chinese cultural elements and whatnot. There just aren't that many that will have resonance in the Western market.
Professor Stan Rosen

China Film Group CEO Zhao Haicheng says the movie brought together the "best of China and the US" and was a "real co-production". He calls it a "very American film".

Whether The Great Wall may be too American and fantastic for Chinese audiences, yet too Chinese for international viewers, remains a question on both sides of the Pacific.

Stan Rosen, a professor at the University of Southern California and expert in Chinese movies, expects The Great Wall to perform strongly in China thanks to its brand-name Chinese stars and director and Hollywood-grade special effects. But he believes the tougher part may be attracting interest in the West, particularly during a crowded 2016 holiday movie season.

"I think they're not so worried about the market in China; the big concern is the market in the US," Rosen says.

Yet several people who work for Chinese entities involved in the production say they expect the movie to make much more money outside China. "It's a very American story; this is an American film. I'm not sure Chinese people can accept it," says one.

Peter Loehr, CEO of Legendary's Asia arm, says producers "aren't banking on this market or that market to take a disproportionate share" of ticket sales.

"If everyone else in the world does more [box office] than China, it's great. If China does more, great, that's even better," he says. "The outlook from the beginning was that this is an international, English-language movie with Matt Damon and monsters, and it speaks to a specific demographic, and it happens to have Chinese themes."

The film has been deemed an official US-China co-production by Chinese regulators, meaning it is not subject to import quotas and could secure a prime Chinese release date that would normally be off-limits to "foreign" movies. Chinese authorities have been pushing overseas filmmakers to pursue such joint projects, in part to build up China's film industry in a push to bring more "Chinese elements" into movies that might play globally.

But even if The Great Wall does prove to be a worldwide hit, Rosen says there may not be many other films that can follow in its footsteps.

" The Great Wall is kind of a can't-miss co-production in a way, but there aren't that many other films that meet the standards for co-productions - with a largely Chinese cast, Chinese cultural elements and whatnot. There just aren't that many that will have resonance in the Western market," he says. "The Chinese government is promoting these things still, but I think for the money people, they'll be much more selective on co-productions in the future."

Many details of The Great Wall's plot - to say nothing of the attributes of its mythical monsters - remain secret. But we do know Damon will play William Garin, a mercenary from Europe who comes to China with Pero Tovar (Pascal), a swordsman with a bullfighter's flair.

When "otherworldly creatures hellbent on devouring humanity" launch an attack, producers say, these journeymen partner with an army of Chinese warriors and "transform the Great Wall into a weapon" to defend humankind.

Willem Dafoe plays a supporting role as Ballard, a shadowy foreign outsider who has been imprisoned in a Chinese fortress for years and plots to steal the Chinese army's greatest weapon. Lau, known for his roles in such films as Infernal Affairs and House of Flying Daggers, plays strategist Wang, an alchemist, intellectual and technological innovator who must devise schemes and weaponry to defeat the assault.

The Chinese warriors include an all-female aerial division known as the Crane Corps and four other regiments named for animals including Bears, Deer and Eagles. Wang Junkai, lead singer of the Chinese boy band TF Boys, plays the teenage emperor whose kingdom is under assault.

The Great Wall went through several stages of development before cameras actually began to roll in the spring. When Legendary first announced the project in 2011, Ed Zwick ( The Last Samurai) was tapped as director, and the company was partnered with Chinese studio Huayi Bros.

Those plans fell by the wayside, and Zhang Yimou came aboard last year. Known for his strong, stylised visuals in such films as Hero and House of Flying Daggers, he also oversaw the lavish staging of the opening ceremonies of Beijing's 2008 Summer Olympics. But he has never directed a movie with this degree of special effects, nor has he ever headed a film in English.

However, Zhang is being backed by a bevy of Hollywood heavy hitters: Industrial Light & Magic and Weta Workshop are doing visual-effects work. Two-time Oscar winner John Myhre ( Chicago, Memoirs of a Geisha) is the production designer, and Mayes Rubeo, costume designer for Avatar, is also on board.

"This is the biggest movie I've ever been involved with," says Damon, who adds that travelling to the real Great Wall was a highlight of his months in China. But when audiences see the film's version of the wall, he adds, they'll be in for some "fun surprises".

Los Angeles Times