One of the most hyped-up film productions of the year is shaping up to be a box office success, and a critical bomb.
“The Great Wall,” a Matt Damon vehicle co-produced by Chinese and Hollywood studios, generated $66 million in ticket sales in its opening weekend, making it 2016’s fourth-biggest movie. Yet its strong showing at the box office has been overshadowed by tepid reviews, which could bode poorly for its US release in February, as well as the future of US-China co-productions of its ilk.
“The Great Wall” was the first genuine co-production between US and Chinese studios, to great benefit to the US side. Most made-in-Hollywood films exported to China receive only 25% of after-tax ticket sales, but studios that meet the Chinese government’s standards for a “co-production” can collect 43%. Earning that designation requires partnering with local studios, employing a Chinese cast and crew, and incorporating cultural elements into the story.
To meet these requirements, Hollywood’s Legendary Entertainment (which itself was purchased by China’s Dalian Wanda Group in January, long after the film was well underway) partnered with state-backed China Film Group and China’s Le Vision Pictures to pour $150 million into the The Great Wall. They secured filmmaker Zhang Yimou, director of the 2008 Beijing Olympics opening ceremony, to direct, along with a cast of A-list stars from both countries. The cultural elements? An origin fable about the Great Wall, involving foreign mercenaries who join forces with Chinese militia to defeat the Taotie, dragonlike monsters who jump the titular structure every 60 years to wreak havoc.
This past weekend “The Great Wall” had the fourth-best opening weekend of any production in China in 2016, surpassing Star Wars: The Force Awakens, which opened in January.
Yet, now that the audience reviews are in, the movie might not do so well in weekends to come. The film currently holds a 5.4/10 rating on Douban (link in Chinese), China’s IMDB-esque film portal, with the over 40% of over 70,000 reviews rating the film either one or two stars out of five.
Many are lamenting the film’s prioritization of style over substance. In particular, some were disappointed with the clumsy merging of mid-rate Hollywood blockbuster storytelling and gratuitous nods to “Chinese culture.”
“The biggest problem is there are too many boring parts, flat characters, a retarded story, and a lack of imagination,” wrote one scathing reviewer (link in Chinese). “The Chinese element has basically been reduced to sky lanterns, Chinese military armor, the Great Wall, and other symbols of Eastern culture. It doesn’t use the story to promote traditional Eastern values, it’s all tokens.”
Other commenters argue the film marks a nadir for director Zhang Yimou. The filmmaker spent much of the nineties directing artful narratives, but his work has become increasingly commercial.
“Zhang is filming this Hollywood popcorn film with the same approach he applied to 2008 Beijing Olympics—you spend a bunch of money to make fancy shots, ” wrote one commenter (link in Chinese) on Douban. “Congratulations Zhang Yimou, you’ve finally shot a messy, mindless, illogically plotted star-studded Hollywood film,” wrote another (link in Chinese).
“The Great Wall” is scheduled for a US release in February. Even with its Hollywood pedigree, attracting an audience there will be an uphill battle. Most of the cast consists of unfamiliar Chinese actors, the cultural references will have even less appeal overseas than from within China, and many have questioned why Damon is the star of a film that’s supposed to be about China anyway. If the film’s box-office revenues dry up, the first US-China co-production could be be the last.