The critical consensus isn’t always correct, but in this case the 38 percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes is well deserved. Despite this, the worldwide take was more than $224.6 million for the opening weekend. But neither box-office success nor the story itself are why this film is such a landmark moment in American cinema.
On one hand, The Great Wall could usher in an age of greater diversity on the big screen. On the other, it’s likely that this movie is a first step towards greater censorship in both the U.S. and China, and could lead to the U.S. being more likely to overlook human rights violations.
Breaking Down the Pop Culture Relationship Between the U.S. and China
A quick overview on the collective opinion of the 1.37 billion Chinese people on American films is that they love them. Well, at least the ones that make it through the Communist filter. Avengers, Furious 7, and Jurassic World were all huge hits at the Chinese box office.
However, many seemingly innocent American blockbusters have been banned, including Avatar (for “undertones of rebellion”), Back to the Future (China bans all movies with time travel) and the 2016 Ghostbusters reboot (for “promoting cults or superstition”).
Once in a blue moon, a Chinese movie will find an audience in the United States, but it’s been nearly two decades since Americans lined up to see Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, the last bonafide hit to make it across the Pacific.
But The Great Wall is like nothing that’s been tried before. A co-produced feature between Chinese and American companies, weaving together Hollywood A-listers (Matt Damon, Willem Dafoe, Game of Thrones’ Pedro Pascal) with practically every bankable star from Chinese cinema. It’s an American penned story (Max Brooks, of the award winning novel World War Z) and helmed by China’s greatest director, Yimou Zhang (the mind behind the spectacle of the 2008 Olympic Opening Ceremony). The critics hate it, sure, with two-thirds of reviews on Rotten Tomatoes falling squarely in the negative category.
But The Great Wall looks to bring in nearly double its production cost in the first week, the only category that really matters to Hollywood (or their Chinese counterparts). The crack in the metaphorical dam has been opened, and at least 10 more American-Chinese co-productions are in the works, including an action blockbuster pairing Jason Statham and Chinese star Li Bingbing.
This new era of global entertainment means that an idea or franchise that would have been a flop can now be saved by a strong showing in Russia and China. Last summer’s video game spinoff Warcraft opened to mostly empty theaters around the county, but Chinese fans showed up in droves, all but guaranteeing multiple sequels are on their way.
So, as this trend continues, it’s more and more likely that the summer blockbusters—movies released from April through July that usually feature robots, monsters, car chases and high body counts—could be more influenced by Chinese moviegoers than their American counterparts.
And it’s not like these co-productions will release two versions of a film, one standard American version and another edited to fit Communist standards. Essentially, Communist officials, at least in small ways, now get to decide the content of some of the movies you and I watch in the United States.
The Good: An Underrepresented Group Comes to the Forefront
Despite living in the greater Chicago area, the rural midwestern drawl formed in the Mississippi river bottom where Illinois, Iowa and Missouri meet, has never fully disappeared from my speech. Most people who hear my accent assume I must have had a homogenous upbringing in flyover country. Which is only half true.
My upbringing was quite diverse. In the late 1970s my native Pike County, IL experienced an influx of Asian immigrants as several churches sponsored families from Laos out of refugee camps in Thailand, where they had fled from the economic collapse and mass killings that swept Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia after Richard Nixon withdrew troops from the region.
Many Saturdays, I would ride my bike up the gravel road to play with the neighbor boys, Jim and Vilo, who had two obsessions: World War II flicks and Bruce Lee. They were typical second-generation immigrants, freely mixing the heritage of their parents with the culture of their birth.
It wasn’t until I reached adulthood that I realized it wasn’t only the typical elementary school boy interest in martial arts that elevated Lee to such great heights. It was also the fact that Bruce Lee was essentially the only Asian in pop culture for Jim and Vilo to look up to in the late 1980s and early 1990s.
Asian Americans (including Chinese, Indian and people with roots in the Pacific Rim) make up nearly 10 percent of the population, yet almost don’t exist in the world of TV and movies.
When Constance Wu was cast in the ABC sitcom Fresh off the Boat, she didn’t realize it was the first time an Asian family has been depicted on TV in nearly 20 years, when Margaret Cho’s All American Girl was canceled after just one season. Wu told The New York Times that the steady paycheck from a hit show has allowed her to shift her focus from “self interests to Asian-American interests.”
With a bevy of U.S.-Chinese co-produced movies in the works, she won’t be fighting the battle alone. The median skin tone on movie screens is going to get less white. In a cinematic era where blond-haired, green-eyed Emma Stone can be cast as part Chinese and Marvel inexplicably replaced an Asian man with a white woman in Doctor Strange, it will be a welcome change to see more diverse faces in entertainment.
The Bad: Human Rights Squaring Off Against Entertainment
Unfortunately, there’s also a very grim side to the changes the trend could bring. Humankind has a bleak history of choosing comfort and novelty over the welfare of their fellow man. As far back as the battle to outlaw slavery in England in the early 1800s, some Brits felt an inner conflict between wanting to end human bondage and the desire to keep buying cheap imported sugar for their tea.
If that sounds absurd and horrifying, keep in mind that it’s possible that up to 75 percent of chocolate consumed in developed countries is harvested by child labor, many of whom are outright slaves. As a society, we want to care about global injustice, but clearly not enough to have a notable effect on our purchasing decisions.
Just because China is working with the the U.S. on film production does not mean it’s open to importing western tolerance.
In 2015, the Congressional-Executive Commission on China (CECC) documented a that the Chinese government continues to “silence dissent, suppress human rights advocacy, and control civil society,” resulting in oppression that’s “broader in scope than any other period documented since the Commission started issuing Annual Reports in 2002.”
As RELEVANT reported in 2016, the Chinese government’s persecution of Christians is particularly harsh, a plight that continues to fall on deaf ears in the American church.
Like the British who turned a blind eye to slavery in the name of consumerism, tens of millions of Americans seem content to tune out the human suffering tied to how we spend our money, as long as they get what they want.
I fear that depending on China for the entertainment that fills our screens, big and small, will only further harden our hearts to the suffering of our fellow believers trapped under tyrannical rule.