Matt Damon’s newest project, The Great Wall opened on Friday, December 16, 2016, in China, and enjoyed a very respectable $67.4M weekend gross. Legendary Studios made the decision to open in China for two reasons. First, the storyline revolves around a fictional take on why the Great Wall was built in Northern China. According to the movie, every 60 years, a horde of monsters called the Taotie attack, forcing the Imperial Army to defend China against the hordes. As such, this film has deep roots in Chinese mythology and also has one of the largest Chinese casts ever assembled for any film, Western or Asian.
Secondly, China is quickly becoming a force to be reckoned with when it comes to movies. China is regarded as the No. 2 box office in the world, falling only short of the United States. With unparalleled growth in cities, the demand for entertainment is huge. The Great Wall’s opening is the third-biggest opening of the year, falling behind The Mermaid($120M), and Captain America: Civil War($93.6M). Legendary using China as an opening market is a great business decision, allowing the studio to get a feel for how the movie will open across the rest of the world.
The Great Wall has been mired in a controversy in the Western world. This is primarily because some view the inclusion of Matt Damon as a mercenary meant to assist the Imperial Army as a case of whitewashing and the “white savior” trope. Matt Damon has taken to social media and interviews at large to defend the film, saying the following.
“If people see this movie and there is somehow whitewashing involved in a creature feature that we made up, then I will listen to that with my whole heart. I will think about that and try to learn from that. I will be surprised if people see this movie and have that reaction. I will be genuinely shocked.”
The controversy surrounding Damon’s character started when the film’s teaser trailer debuted in July of 2016. Constance Wu, who plays Jessica Huang on the ABC comedy Fresh Off the Boat, posted the following
Can we all at least agree that hero-bias & "but it's really hard to finance" are no longer excuses for racism? TRY pic.twitter.com/mvNet5PrtH— Constance Wu (@ConstanceWu) July 29, 2016
For those who don’t know, whitewashing is the term used when a white actor is hired to play the role of a non-white character. For example, in the 2012 film Argo, Ben Affleck plays the part of Tony Mendez, the man who heads the operation to rescue six Americans during the Iranian hostage crisis in the early 1980s. In reality, Mendez is Latino. Another example is Johnny Depp playing the role of Tonto, a Native American in the 2013 film, Lone Ranger. More recently, the casting choices of Tilda Swinton as The Ancient One in Doctor Strange, and Scarlet Johansson as Motoki Kusanagi in Ghost in the Shell have drawn criticism for whitewashing.
Matt Damon and the Chinese director of The Great Wall, Zhang Yimou, have defended Damon’s casting, saying that first, this is historical fiction, and therefore there is no Chinese role that Matt Damon is taking over. Secondly, the character of William Garin was always meant to be a white actor.
Regardless of the controversy here in the United States and Europe, the claims of whitewashing don’t seem to have affected the opening numbers for The Great Wall, at least in Asia. How they will impact the opening numbers when the movie premieres in the United States remains to be seen.
The Great Wall stars Andy Lau, Lin Gengxin, Lu Han, Matt Damon, Pedro Pascal, Tian Jing, and Willem Dafoe, and is directed by renowned Chinese director Zhang Yimou. It will premiere in the United States on February 17, 2017, with staggered international releases from now until then.
[Featured Image by Legendary Entertainment]