Matt Damon is Not the Hero China Needs, But He’s The One Hollywood Will Give Us

Matt Damon, in a screen capture from the newly released trailer for "The Great Wall".
Matt Damon, in a screen capture from the newly released trailer for “The Great Wall”.

I can’t even right now.

The basic concept of the upcoming The Great Wall seems like a Hollywood studio wet dream: the Great Wall of China is reimagined as the frontlines for a fantasy thriller that pits mankind against an army of invading mythical monsters. If one were going down a checklist for making a big-budget fantasy movie guaranteed to make money, this would be it. Fast-paced action scenes? Check. Breath-taking CGI? Check. An opportunity to film in 3D? Check. A stupid movie plot? Check. People armed with a bows and arrows? Check. Check. Check.

In an alternate universe, The Great Wall might have been kind of cool. I’ve long waited for Hollywood to start earnestly exploring movie concepts outside of the Western cultural, historical, and sociopolitical framework. Non-Western and non-White history is flush with great stories just waiting to be told. The Great Wall could have been such an opportunity. In so doing, it could have recentered the camera’s gaze on non-White people, offered a tale of non-White humanity, and told a silly fantasy story about a pretty interesting era of ancient Chinese history.

Indeed, I’m a fan of Chinese blockbuster films, perhaps because films that emerge out of Asian movie houses are refreshingly unbound by American cinema’s racial stereotypes. As a consequence, Chinese cinema accomplishes naturally that which American Hollywood still struggles to do: in Chinese cinema, (East) Asian characters occupy the full range of the human condition. In American cinema, we are always the oddball, the outcast, or the supporting character. In Asian cinema, we are treated by the camera as if we are fully, messily, complicatedly human.

John Cho articulates what I’m trying to say pretty well in a recent article with Vulture (which I recently wrote about in another context):

I’ve thought about why Asian stars — from Asia, I mean — look so much better in their Asian films than they do in their American films, and now I can answer that to some extent. There’s an eye, and it’s not a malicious eye, which is a way that the people working the camera and behind the scenes view us. And then they process it and they put it on film. And it’s not quite human. Whereas Asian films, they are considered fully human. Fully heroic, fully comic, fully lovely, fully sad, whatever it is.

The Great Wall, scheduled for release in 2017, is a joint venture between American and Chinese Hollywood. Principal filming began in 2015, and the film will feature a veritable who’s-who of Chinese movie stars, including Andy Lau and Jing Tian, and is directed by famous Chinese director Zhang Yimou. But all of those actors will serve as supporting cast to the film’s lead, played by Matt Damon.

Yes, that’s right, Matt-fucking-Damon is starring in a movie set in ancient China, where he will lead a Chinese army against invading dragons or something.

I’ve been a longtime fan of Zhang Yimou’s other work. I grew up on Red Sorghum and Raise the Red Lantern, two film that feature strong and unapologetic female Chinese protagonists. When it comes to blockbuster wuxia and military epics, few films are able to reach the visual sumptuousness and storytelling scope of House of Flying Daggers and Curse of the Golden Flower. When we say that the Asian film industry treats Asian actors as if we are fully human, we are oftentimes thinking about the work of Zhang Yimou.

So why-oh-why is The Great Wall — Zhang’s first English-language film — turning into so much of a missed opportunity? Why is Hollywood denying Zhang — whose directorial eye has done so much to portray East Asians (and particularly East Asian women) as complicated and human protagonists — a chance to do the same for American audiences?

Meanwhile, Matt Damon as the star of this film is, on its face, absurd.

The Great Wall of China was built over a roughly fifteen year period between 220-206 BCE when it was made primarily of wood and tapped earth. The Wall we’re familiar with today is its reconstructed version, when during the Ming Dynasty of the 14th century it was fortified to protect China against invading Mongolians armies. It was at that time that the Wall was reforged out of materials like brick and stone.

The Great Wall ignores this history by setting its film during the Song dynasty — nearly five hundred years prior to when the modern Wall was built; yet, the film features what appears to be the Wall in its modern incarnation. Furthermore, the Song dynasty unified China after the wars of the Five Kingdoms era, and ruled prior to any extensive contact between China and most Western civilizations. There’s simply nothing in China’s history that explains why the Great Wall would appear the way it does in The Great Wall while ancient Song military generals enlist the help of people who look like Matt Damon, Willem DaFoe, and Pedro Pascal.

Sure, this is a fantasy film. I mean, the trailer also features some sort of lizard creature biting the hell out of someone and pulling them off the Wall. So, historical accuracy isn’t really a thing that filmmakers are going for, right?

But, that’s just not good enough an excuse here. Some might argue that the choice to cast Damon is a business decision designed to marry Chinese movie production with American Hollywood’s biggest names in order to draw both American and Chinese movie-going audiences. Yet, as Keith Chow has pointed out for the New York Times, White-washing is bad business for American Hollywood: few White-washed films earn decent box office revenue.

The choice to portray Matt Damon as The Great Wall‘s Great White Hope sends a clear message to Asian and Asian American audiences: it underscores the lengths to which American Hollywood will go to twist fact and fiction to ensure that a White person (and usually a White man) always be the hero of the stories they tell. It doesn’t matter if Hollywood needs to bend time, or space, or the very limits of common sense credibility; for Hollywood, white men must always play the hero. The choice to cast Damon and DaFoe in The Great Wall, while actors like Andy Lau are supporting cast, communicates Hollywood’s unwavering commitment to the White male gaze. Once again, Asians and Asian Americans are reminded that we cannot be our own heroes. Once again, we are treated as too foreign to be cast in the role of the familiar. Once again, mainstream Hollywood only has room for us as supporting characters in our own stories. Once again,  the Asian experience is co-opted to serve as mere backdrop for a story about Whiteness.

Asian Americans and other people of colour are asked to swallow the most ridiculous of premises in order to keep Whiteness center-stage in the films that emerge out of American Hollywood: Tom Cruise is the Last Samurai. Jim Sturgess headlines a story about the predominantly Asian American real-life MIT blackjack team. Emma Stone plays a biracial Chinese and Hawaiian woman. Scarlett Johanssen plays a Japanese cyborg in futuristic Tokyo. Tilda Swinton is a Tibetan monk. Leonardo DiCaprio is Rumi. And now, Matt Damon is fighting dragons in China in the year 1000 AD.

All of this comes together to once again remind Asian Americans and other people of colour that American Hollywood is not for us. When Matt Damon is the hero of a movie about ancient China — when he is even put in the position of narrating this story for audiences — Hollywood engages in the flawed calculus that assumes that White American moviegoers are so racist that they will only enjoy a movie that features a hero who looks and sounds like them, and who sees the world as they do. Never mind that people of colour have had to identify with protagonists who don’t look like us for decades; and, never mind that Hollywood’s flawed math ignores the non-White moviegoer in order to make their movies solely about the White (male) gaze. Hollywood assumes that the only way they can show ancient China on-screen is if China exists only as a playground for the adventuring White man. In film (as too often in life) people of colour are callously and carelessly pushed aside so that White audiences can keep intact the narrative of the White male hero.

Only in Hollywood would China need Matt Damon to save it from monsters. But here’s a radical idea: how about we make a movie where China (or Japan or some other non-White civilization) doesn’t run to the nearest Matt Damon archetype to fight its fantasy monsters? How about we finally make movies that shows China (or some other non-White people) actually saving itself from the dragons at the gate?

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, fuck mainstream Hollywood. If they have so much disdain for me, why should I have anything but disdain for it? I support independent film for a reason.


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