Hero and House Of Flying Daggers director Zhang Yimou has responded to accusations—most notably lobbed by Fresh Off The Boat actress Constance Wu—that his latest movie, the Chinese action epic The Great Wall, perpetuates racist Hollywood stereotypes. Specifically, by either putting forth the idea that a bunch of ancient Chinese people can’t go saving the world from medieval monsters without a white guy there to lead the charge, or the more meta argument that an international blockbuster can’t do well at the box office without a white performer in a starring role.
Zhang issued a statement to Entertainment Weekly today, defending The Great Wall, denying that his casting choices were influenced by commercial or political concerns, and asking critics to wait until the finished product arrives in theaters before passing judgment. “As the director of over 20 Chinese-language films and the Beijing Olympics,” Zhang wrote, “I have not and will not cast a film in a way that was untrue to my artistic vision. I hope when everyone sees the film and is armed with the facts they will agree.” Zhang also noted that Damon’s character is one of five of the film’s heroes, the rest of whom are all Chinese.
You wouldn’t really know that from the trailer that was released last week, though, which prominently features the Bourne actor’s bored voiceover, growling face, and hideous “I am a medieval mercenary” haircut in practically every frame. While Zhang might not buy into the “Nobody in America will see this if we don’t put a white Hollywood star front and center” school of international movie politics, someone in the movie’s marketing department sure seems to. (Case in point: Out of all the performers in the trailer, Damon is the only one listed by name, with his big block-letter credit dwarfing Zhang’s.)
Great Wall is both a huge production and an important test case, the latest attempt for China’s rapidly growing film industry to get a foothold in the global movie market. The film is a joint production between American and Chinese financiers and filmmakers—including Legendary Entertainment, which was acquired by Chinese media conglomerate Wanda Group earlier this year. In Zhang’s words, “For the first time, a film deeply rooted in Chinese culture, with one of the largest Chinese casts ever assembled, is being made at tentpole scale for a world audience. I believe that is a trend that should be embraced by our industry.” That’s a lot of weight to rest on what looks to be a pretty goofy film about Matt Damon glowering at giant, wall-scaling monsters, but presumably landmark international test cases have gotta take what they can get.