Why Can’t Hollywood Get China Right?

'The Great Wall' proves that what works for a Chinese audience isn't always palatable for Americans.

Feb 26 2017, 3:30pm

If you saw Matt Damon's latest film, The Great Wall, last week, please let me know what it's like to have all that legroom in the theater. Did you stretch out? Throw your bag in the seat next to you? Did you move around between the front, back, and middle? Or did you just take a nap on the floor near the stairs? Your options must have been plentiful, because the film made a scant $21 million here in the United States in its opening weekend. That's compared to the $245.7 million that it made overseas. Of that total, a whopping $171 million came from China alone. But that was to be expected. A movie set in China about a mercenary defending the Great Wall from CGI monsters better destroy box office records in the country. It's a thirst trap for Chinese filmgoers.

Conventional wisdom says that for a movie like this—one with a historical, foreign setting and fantastical elements— to succeed in the US, it needs a big (preferably white, male) star. One need only look back at the whitewashing of M. Night Shyamalan's The Last Airbender in 2010 to see how Hollywood views stories that have an Asian origin or location. That movie, which was based on a Nickelodeon animated series inspired by Chinese martial arts lore, made $188 million in foreign ticket sales. That's $131 million in America, but only $4.5 million came from China. ( That film barely made back its $150 production budget, and likely lost money after factoring in marketing costs and the percentage of net earnings that go to theater owners. The similarly whitewashed video game adaptation Prince of Persia also bombed, but the result was even more grim than Last Airbender in the United States. That film made $90 million in America, but $245 million globally off of a $200 million budget. That's despite casting Jake Gyllenhaal in a role that logically should have gone to someone from the Middle East, if not specifically someone Persian.

Over and over, whitewashed films are embraced overseas, but American audiences generally reject them. That will come into play again when Ghost in the Shell, itself based on a Japanese manga comic, is released on March 31. Characters that, in all other adaptations of the source material have been Japanese, are made to be white for the American feature film. Scarlett Johansson's casting as the film's lead caused a great deal of controversy—doubly so when rumors began to spread that the studio had considered using CGI to make its white cast look Japanese.

Matt Damon's presence in The Great Wall was an effort to adhere to this conventional wisdom and make the film palatable for the average American consumer. And yet it didn't and the movie bombed. So what happened?

The answer might lie in our country's shifting attitude toward cultural appropriation, a concern that seems to matter more to the West than the rest of the world. The Great Wall is already the 20th highest grossing film in Chinese box office history, with nary a concern for Matt Damon's presence as a swashbuckling white American protagonist. It could be that in a nation defined by its melting pot status—but with two centuries of white hegemony under its belt—the ridiculous white savior trope is all too real for us and drags up that history of racial animosity, which we really can't escape now that Donald Trump and his white supremacist apologist administration is in the White House. Put more simply: The Great Wall is a throwback to a time when American audiences were less apt to consider the racial politics of a movie where a white action hero saves the day in an "exotic" land, ala Tarzan or any manner of John Wayne film. Still, the Chinese market wants those movies, and we'll keep making them to satisfy the desires of a cash rich nation hungry for American schlock.

The Chinese appetite for American films seems boundless. Of the 50 biggest all-time grossers in China, 21 of them are at least American co-productions. Increasingly, American films use Chinese capital to fund their operations, and that leads to more and more subtle (and not-so-subtle) nods to China in the plots of these movies. Academy Award nominee for Best Picture, Arrival, has a pivotal role for the Chinese government and Chinese officials that likely guaranteed it a release in the country. (China is highly selective of the films it allows in the country.) Last year's Ghostbusters reboot was denied a release because of the ruling party's ban on "cults and superstition." Including Chinese settings in movies like Transformers: Age of Extinction or going after Chinese production investment, like in Star Trek Beyond, opens that lucrative market up for high-risk, high-reward studio blockbusters.

The Great Wall is such a transparent Chinese cash grab—a film about the Great Wall, set in China, backed by Chinese investors—that it was never going to work here. The key for studios going forward is to find a middle ground. Furious 7, the third highest grossing film in Chinese history, wasn't made for China. It wasn't filmed in China. There are no Chinese lead actors. But it did have Chinese financial investment. It simply worked as a movie, and that's really all any of us want—good movies. Great Wall reminded me more of Big Trouble in Little China—John Carpenter's fantasy-action-comedy starring Kurt Russell as a bumbling, arrogant truck driver who gets caught up in the mystical underground of San Francisco's Chinatown. Russell's character, Jack Burton, is pig-headed, clueless about other cultures, and highly conceited. Big Trouble bombed when it was released in 1986, but it would likely fare much better today, considering Hollywood's fascination with China and America's fascination with dim-witted blowhards.

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