Movie Review: The Great Wall 长城

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The Great Wall was recently released in China with much hype. Directed by the Zhang Yimou (director of Raise the Red Lantern, among many other critically-acclaimed films as well as the famed opening ceremony of the 2008 Beijing Olympics), and starring Matt Damon, it is bilingual and the first truly American and Chinese coproduction. Suffice to say, expectations were high.

Unfortunately, perhaps due to the high expectations, the film has already been poorly received and critically panned in China. However, for a causal audience member not steeped in fifth-generation Chinese cinema film buff lore, it can still make for an enjoyable romp. If one just forgets to consider the tide of Hollywood pandering to China, not to mention ignoring problematic ‘white savior’ tropes, it is possible to see The Great Wall as a decent and fun film.

Taken for what it is, Zhang’s latest does succeed at being an exciting fantasy adventure about Western explorers fighting monsters in an ancient Chinese setting. Suspension of disbelief always required, the story opens with a couple of horse-riding mercenaries seeking mysterious explosive black powder. Eventually they make it to the Great Wall, where they meet Damon’s love interest Commander Lin played by Jing Tian.

Matt Damon more or less pulls off the medieval accent passably, and his costar Game of Thrones’ Pedro Pascal is excellent and usually outshines Damon in scenes featuring both of them. The pair of warriors have good chemistry as buddy action films go, although with a somewhat predictable character arc as they break up and get back together. Pascal’s Hispanic heritage is used for corny effect (although the actor is from Chile, he plays a Spaniard), complete with a completely unnecessary “bullfighting” scene.

Willem Dafoe is also utilized well as a sniveling fellow Westerner. Andy Lau’s grizzled military officer rounds out the cast as the requisite token Chinese star, but he is often left behind by the star power of the rest of the cast.

The plot moves quickly and doesn’t wait long to jump into Peter Jackson-style tower sieges. The monsters are called Taotie and the special effects are indeed Hollywood level, although at this point in cinema history it’s long since past groundbreaking to see mass hordes of demons in epically intricate battles. When the scenes go smaller scale into warriors battle monsters individually, the carefully honed craft of Chinese wushu-style film proves to be more engaging than the indulgences of high-end Hollywood CGI war.

As the plot goes, there are some logistics that make little sense. The moral lessons of trust and loyalty are heavy handed. The origin story of the monsters didn’t seem to have much thought at all behind it, although one does suppose that it’s a fantasy universe so why not. And in particular, the color-coded uniforms for the Chinese army is especially cheesey and reminiscent of those childish superheroes the Power Rangers. The climatic final battle in the capital city does make up for much of the flaws of the film, but overall The Great Wall is not meant to be taken so seriously in the first place.

Whether or not Zhang Yimou has “sold out” as some accuse, The Great Wall was never meant to be his finest work. It probably won’t succeed as a breakout introduction of Chinese cinema for Western audiences, but of those who do watch the film it’s definitely worth taking the time to see what all the fuss has been about.

This reviewer recommends low expectations. Don’t think too much, and just enjoy it for what it is: A fun, dumb Hollywood fantasy movie which just happens to take place in China.

The Great Wall will be released in America on February 17th.

 

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Interview with a Chinese Learner

Interview With a Chinese Learner: Ray Hecht

Originally posted at EazyChinese.com
http://eazychinese.com/interview-chinese-learner-2

Hey everyone, how’s it going? Today I’m coming at you with another interview. Today’s victim is Chinese learner Ray Hecht. He”s been living in Mainland China for years, and has a lot of interesting things to say on his blog about China, dating in China and learning Chinese. Plus he shares some pretty sweet art and poetry as well, so hop on over to his site and check out his writing! Being a fellow comic geek, I can relate to a lot of what he has to say!

Now on to the interview.

Q: What Made you decide to learn Chinese?

I was first interested in Asian culture by way of Japanese manga and anime, being a long-time comic geek in my youthful days (and still a geek in my older days). As I got older I became more interested in film, and after watching many classic Kurosawa I came upon Cantonese films of Wong Kar-wai in my teenage years. Eventually this led to watching the film Farewell my Concubine, directed by Chen Kaige, which is one of my favorite movies of all time. In addition to watching the 90s films of Chinese 5th generation filmmaker Zhang Yimou, I became fascinated by China. However, I studied Japanese in college. Learning kanji did give me me a head start in learning hanzi, although the languages are quite different. I never did end up moving to Japan, just visiting a few times (learning some of the language did help). I later got an opportunity to move to Shenzhen and I fully embraced it. Currently, Mandarin is the only other language besides English I speak with any fluency, though I always have more to learn.

Q:How long have you been a student of Chinese, and how long did it take you to become conversational?

I’ve been studying for six years, and in the first year I learned ‘survival Chinese.’ I’ve been getting better at being more conversational in the last 3 years I suppose, but on having deep conversations I know I still have ways to go. The problem is that most conversations are the same: “Where are you from?”, “Are you married?” “How many years have you been in China?” etc.

Q:What was your biggest challenge learning Chinese? And what came easiest to you?

My biggest challenge at first was definitely the tones. Then, the characters although I am always making progress even though it takes years. When it comes to characters, just be patient but make a little progress all the time. In speaking, the grammar of Chinese is easier and I was able to formulate simple sentences quite fast (even if not pronouncing it correctly). “I like…” “I’m from…” and that sort of thing.

Q:What advice would you give to our readers who are just embarking on their journey with Chinese?

I suppose the best advice is to be fully immersive, go to China — or Taiwan, or Singapore — and start speaking. If you are in a big city in China, be careful not to be in the bubble that is the expat scene in which you rarely even speak Mandarin. Push yourself to practice those phrases you studied in real-life, it’s the only way!

Q:Do you have a favorite Chinese phrase? If so, what is it and why?

Well, 多少錢 duoshaoqian (“How much money?”) would be the phrase I say the most often, in going out shopping everyday. Some vocabulary words are fun, when Chinese can be so literal. Technological words such as 電腦 diannao (electric brain: computer) and 電影 dianying (electric shadow: movie) and many more.

Q:What’s your one biggest “hack” for learning Chinese?

One trick is to not stress about tones too much, and just try wait you’re best until one day it becomes effortless. You can still communicate, don’t be afraid to make mistakes. With pronunciation, one can imitate another more advanced learner of Mandarin instead of imitating native speakers. After all, any fluent learner was once a beginner and can offer great advice.

Thanks for taking the time to share with us Ray! I hope everyone will learn from Ray’s experiences, and move forward in their own studies. I especially agree with his point on getting out there and SPEAKING. So what are you still doing here? Get out there and practice your Chinese!