East really does meet West in Zhang Yimou’s latest film, The Great Wall. An epic blockbuster in the grand tradition of the Hollywood monster movie, it plunders ancient Chinese mythology for a story set during the 11th century.
The idea? That the country’s most famous landmark – the 21,196 km-long fortification that runs from Dangong to Lop Lake – was built to defend its inhabitants from ravenous beasts that, every 60 years, surface from the depths of the Earth.
“The Great Wall, to the Chinese, is a cultural symbol and also a spiritual symbol,” says Zhang, the 65-year-old director whose past works include Hero and Raise The Red Lantern.
“Even in our national anthem, we say we use our blood and sweat to build a new Great Wall. And the idea … the spiritual symbol is for peace. The Wall is created to maintain peace and prosperity for its people. So having monsters attack this Wall works really well.”
Swarming the battlements, the creatures at the heart of The Great Wall are inspired by the Taotei, a mythical beast that was the symbol of China before the dragon.
“So the legend goes, it was so greedy, it ate its own body,” says Zhang, who felt this was perfect for a story in which a group of western mercenaries – led by Matt Damon’s avaricious Crusades soldier William Garin – arrive in China on a mission to steal gunpowder, only to be roped in to help fight the monstrous hoards.
Casting Damon in this manner runs contrary to the so-called “white saviour” narrative that many critics on social media mistakenly believed the film to be peddling when the first trailer landed last summer.
Some suggested that Damon’s role should have gone to an Asian actor, others were offended that a western character was the heroic protagonist – here to save China from the beasts.
Zhang sighs over criticism that has dogged his film for the past six months.
“The idea that he [Damon] stole an Asian or Chinese actor’s role is preposterous,” he says. “We were never intending to cast a Chinese person in that role.
“And then the idea that it is only white heroes … that’s preposterous too. The idea is an individual hero from the West and a group of heroes from China, and how they learn from each other and they are able to help each other to defeat the monsters. There’s none of this ‘White heroes are better than Chinese heroes’ or ‘Replacing Chinese actors with white actors’.”
It is certainly true that if anything, The Great Wall is a fine example of Chinese and American cinema working in perfect harmony.
The story started out an idea from Thomas Tull, chief executive at Legendary Entertainment – a US media giant that, last January, was acquired by Chinese conglomerate Wanda Group.
With a reported budget of US$150 million (Dh551m), Zhang’s film is the most expensive ever made in China, requiring a mammoth 1300-strong crew culled from 37 countries.
Not surprisingly, Zhang and his team were unable to shoot on the real Great Wall, given the “thousands of tourists there every day”. Two replicas, running to more than 200 metres each in length, were therefore built in a studio, backed by a giant green screen to aid the addition of computer-generated images in post-production.
“It’s actually very unique,” says Zhang. “The Wall feels very real but you look around and all you see is green.”
The complex special effects were provided by Weta, the Oscar-winning company from New Zealand behind Lord of the Rings.
It took six months and “thousands of iterations” just to design the Taotei.
“It got crazy, but ultimately we found something that everybody’s happy with,” Zhang says. “It’s not an alien lifeform from outer space. It had to be something that comes from organisms on Earth.”
Sounds like an altogether different kind of fantastic beasts, and we know exactly where to find them.
• The Great Wall is in cinemas from Thursday, January 5