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Mediaversity Reviews: “The Great Wall”

“Matt Damon swoops down on a balloon and saves her with my favorite line of the movie, “And here I am,” with all the non sequitur his very presence in this entire film brings.”

Title: The Great Wall (2017)
Director: Yimou Zhang 👨🏻🇨🇳
Writers: Carlos Bernard 👨🏼🇺🇸, Doug Miro  👨🏼🇺🇸, Tony Gilroy  👨🏼🇺🇸

Reviewed by Li 👩🏻🇺🇸

Quality: 1.5/5
Jesus, this movie is bad. It’s so bad that it does a 180 and starts to become hilarious, in the vein of Tommy Wiseau’s The Room or pulpy, IDGAF films like Snakes on a Plane or Sharknado. So I gave it a half point for accidental comedy and shiny costumes.

Gender: 4/5
Does it pass the Bechdel Test? NO
One name: Jing Tian. She was amazing. I want an entire film with just her being a BAMF. I wish she got to fight more. One of the most anti-climactic scenes involves mounting tension as she finds herself surrounded by aliens. I thought a brilliantly-choreographed brawl was ramping up, as per Yimou Zhang’s previous films Hero or House of Flying Daggers, but instead Matt Damon swoops down on a balloon and saves her with my favorite line of the movie, “And here I am,” with all the non sequitur his very presence in this entire film brings. The meta!! Oh god, I laughed so hard.

Beyond Jing Tian, though, any semblance of feminism drops off a cliff. Literally, the other women are these weird lady killers who jump off giant fans and bounce on strings, poking at aliens with oversized toothpicks. It’s hilarious, but hardly empowering.

Race: 2/5
Yes, this is a White Savior movie. Asian soldiers literally say things like “thank you for saving my life” to Matt Damon. So if you balk at understanding that this is a textbook White Savior film, you need to get off this train and board the next; I have more interesting things to delve into like the historical and modern contexts of this controversy.

A quick note to Matt Damon’s whining that this is a fantasy film: yes, it’s a fantasy film. We’re not idiots, we’re not annoyed because we think Irish people (or whatever that accent was) shouldn’t be in fictional China fighting aliens together. We’re annoyed about what isn’t fictional: decades of Asian actors being deleted from their own stories via:

  • White actors in Asian roles (see: Scarlett Johansson in Ghost in the Shell, cast as “Major” for the role of “Major Motoko Kusanagi”)
  • Erasure of Asian roles in order to cast white actors (see: Tilda Swinton’s Celtic character in Doctor Strange, originally Tibetan in the comic)
  • Yellow-face (see: Emma Stone in Aloha, playing a half-Asian).

Keep in mind, I only had to think back 2 years to pull up those gems. Now, imagine decades of erasure, and then tell me people of color should take a chill pill with The Great Wall.

Where the film does deserve some lenience is in considering the real-life context of this film. Although the writers were all white men, with illustrious whitewashed films such as The Last Samurai or Prince of Persia under their belts, the director of The Great Wall is about as Chinese as you can get: Yimou Zhang is a beloved director in his country and was even tapped by the government to choreograph the opening and closing ceremonies to the Beijing Olympics. I find it more sad than offensive that the Chinese think Matt Damon’s clumsy injection would endear The Great Wall to Western audiences. I appreciate their risk-taking, as producers experiment with different ways of appealing to China’s increasing market share; however, I can only hope that in the future, film studios find a more elegant way of doing so.

Finally, also in the “Good” category, the film is fit-to-bursting with Asian actors. I am always going to be in favor of something that gives non-white actors the chance to be seen by a large audience, and to get paid for their work.

LGBTQ: N/A
No representation but too short a program to ding them for it.

Mediaversity Grade: D 2.5/5
Jing Tian slays in the Gender category and I want to watch her anime-character face in everything. Race is not as bad as the trailers make it out to be, especially when considering a Chinese director and mixed group of executive producers were involved in the casting of a white lead. But once you stop making excuses for it The Great Wall is about as literal to the White Savior trope as you can get.

Between bouts of coma-inducing expository about black powder, The Great Wall strings together fun, war-faring music videos set to cool costumes and silly, CGI carnage. Several elements such as Matt Damon’s pseudo-Irish accent, his saving of Asian after Asian, or the breakout roles of magnets and balloons in this film, all combined into one of the funniest things I’ve watched in awhile. I’m not going to sugarcoat it though, the source of much of my incredulous laughter came from a gut-deep place of absurdity as I watched Chinese men get erased, over and over again, both physically on screen by bombs, or by the lifelong media narrative that tells us that at best, Asian guys can be cool and strong but ultimately, it takes a white man to outsmart the enemy. #ThankYouMattDamon

The Stonewall Inn Is Now an Official Landmark

The Stonewall Inn

The Stonewall Inn in Greenwich Village has been in the news recently, and unfortunately, it’s because of the critically-panned Roland Emmerich film, Stonewall. Mostly everyone who’s seen it has hated it, either for its poor story, its whitewashing of actual LGBT history (which includes people of color at its center) or both. But now, The Stonewall Inn is in the news for a great reason: it’s now an official landmark. 

Racially insensitive casting: Zach McGowan as Ben Kanahele in “Ni’ihau”

Nerdy Asians/Twitter

Another day, another whitewashing controversy. This one has been brewing for some days now, and it involves a historical film called Ni’ihau.

The film is based on a true story of a Japanese WWII pilot crash landing on Hawaii, where he was taken in by local leader Ben Kanahele. Here’s the full scoop from Deadline:

…Shigenori Nishikaichi, an Imperial Japanese Navy Air Service pilott, crash-landed his Zero on the eponymous Hawaiian island after participating in the attack on Pearl Harbor. [Zach] McGowan will play Ben Kanahele, an island leader who saves Nishikaichi before learning his part in the attack. When the circumstances became apparent, Nishikaichi was apprehended but received assistance from locals, taking hostages and attempting to overcome his captors. Kanahele ultimately killed Nishikaichi and was decorated for his part in stopping the takeover.
The Ni’ihau Incident led to President Franklin D. Roosevelt issuing Executive Order 9066, which led directly to the mass internment of 119,803 Japanese-American men, women and children until the end of the war.

27 Ten Productions’ Ken Petrie said that with this film being a true story, “there is a weight to be shouldered, and the material requires the utmost care and authenticity.” But apparently, we’re expected to accept Black Sails‘ Zach McGowan as Ben Kanahele. Hasn’t anyone learned anything from the outrage seen around the whitewashing in Ghost in the Shell, The Great Wall, Doctor Strange, Alohaand plenty of other films?

Also, it looks like the film is shaping up to be told in a classic “John Wayne film” way. With McGowan playing the heroic leader (similar to how Wayne played POC historical heroes), it seems like the casting will go towards having a Japanese actor to play Nishikaichi, the villain. That way, they can have the white hero killing the Asian antagonist, saving the day and the native Hawaiian population (who will, of course, be played by actual native Hawaiians).

Do I need to talk at length about what’s wrong? It should be clear by now, especially if you read the articles linked above. This kind of ish has got to stop because now it’s getting ridiculous.

I’ll let Twitter speak for me because I’m tired.

Being Asian in Hollywood: Actors, directors, and creators talk representation

(Top row, from left) Sinakhone Keodara, Jodi Long, Asia Jackson, Kesav Wable. (Bottom row from left) Quentin Lee, Mandeep Sethi, Kunjue Li, Chris Tashima. (Photos: IMDB, Twitter, Kesavmwable.com)
(Top row, from left) Sinakhone Keodara, Jodi Long, Asia Jackson, Kesav Wable. (Bottom row from left) Quentin Lee, Mandeep Sethi, Kunjue Li, Chris Tashima. (Photos: IMDB, Twitter, Kesavmwable.com)

Representation in Hollywood is an issue by itself, but Asian representation in Hollywood is near non-existent. With the state of Hollywood being that black equates to “diversity” (despite there being more types of diversity out there than just being black) and Asian characters are still overrun with stereotypes or whitewashing, Asian actors and actresses have had a tough uphill battle in breaking through the glass ceiling.

JUST ADD COLOR is all about exploring how all types of diversity are showcased in Hollywood, so I thought it would be fantastic to have an ongoing series called POC in Hollywood. First up, the Asian American experience in Hollywood. In this longform piece, we’ll take a closer look at some of the issues and biases plaguing Asian creatives in Hollywood.

This is a longform, so if you’d like to jump to specific parts, here’s the table of contents:

Whiteness as the default

IMDB
IMDB

Historically, Hollywood has used Asian locales and people as props, while white characters are given layered characteristics. In short, white characters have been treated as humans, while everyone and everything else are only developed in stereotypes.

The most recent examples of this include The Birth of the Dragon, in which a white character is used to frame Bruce Lee’s biopic, Doctor Strange, which sees Tilda Swinton playing an Asian role and Benedict Cumberbatch as Doctor Strange, which is a white character used to exploit a stereotypical Asian mysticism, Ghost in the Shell, which uses Japanese culture to frame Scarlett Johansson as The Major and The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel series, which features India as a backdrop for white characters and Dev Patel playing a stereotypical Indian character.

“What’s particularly silly about The Birth of the Dragon is that they invented a fictional white character thinking that that would be what North American audience would want,” wrote Quentin Lee, The Unbidden director and founder of Margin Films in an email interview. “The filmmakers obviously fell flat on their faces. Not only it wasn’t historically accurate for the story, the film ended up insulting Bruce Lee and the audience who would support it. It was a creative misfire.”

Chris Tashima, an Academy-winning director for the 1998 short film Visas and Virtue and co-founder of Cedar Grove Productions, wrote that while he hasn’t seen The Birth of the Dragon yet, he found the basis of the film “ridiculous.”

“It’s understandable, why this has been the practice—being that traditionally, decision makers have been white males, and like anyone else, will want to see stories about themselves, and that audiences have traditionally been thought of as young, white males,” he wrote. “However, all of that is changing. It has been changing for a while, and it’s easy to see where it’s going: towards a diverse world. That’s an old practice and you’d think Hollywood would want to project, and put themselves on the cutting edge, and be more inclusive. It’s old, and tired, and more and more, I think audiences will want to see something different, something more truthful.”

“I think the overarching theme that runs through how Hollywood/the West represents POCs has to do with the ease with which they are able to strip POCs of agency over their own stories,” wrote Kesav Wable, Brooklyn-based actor, writer, 2011 HBO American Black Film Festival finalist for his short film, For Flow and Sundance lab short-listed screenwriter for a script about a Pakistani boxer wrongfully accused of planning a terror attack.

“This may come across as a bit exaggerated or radical, but I do believe that there is a link between white imperialist concepts such as ‘manifest destiny’ and ‘white man’s burden,’ which validated a lot of the literal takings from POCs that happened throughout earlier periods in civilized history, and now, in a media-hungry world where information, content, and stories are the most valuable currencies, there is an analogous “taking” of the narratives that POCs have lived through. By depicting POC characters through the lens of a white character, it enables white audiences to keep POCs’ stories at arm’s length, and to not completely empathize with those characters because they are not given the complete human dignity and complexity that is afforded the white character.”

“Perhaps, this, in a way, damps down the guilt that white audiences may feel if the POCs stories/circumstances have to do with the literal takings that were exacted by their ancestors. Or it’s just good for a cheap laugh. The truly insidious effect of POCs being usurped from their own narratives is that, even many of us POCs begin to start viewing things through a white lens and stop questioning whether these stories truly represent who we are because of how pervasive white-controlled media is.”

Wable used the upcoming film Happy End, which is about a bourgeois European family living amid the current refugee crisis. “Granted, I haven’t seen the film, so it’d be presumptive of me to conclude that refugees are not conferred with dignity/complexity as characters, but the very thought that French filmmakers think that shining a light on a bourgeois family with the refugee crisis as a ‘backdrop’ can be instructive about their world, speaks volumes about what it is white people are most interested in; themselves,” he wrote. “In this case, apparently, the context is a rueful rumination on their own blindness to the refugees’ plight. Somehow the irony of the very film’s existence as a manifestation of that blindness seems to be lost on them.”

Mandeep Sethi, filmmaker and emcee, also discussed about Hollywood’s tendencies to erase non-white people from their own stories. “I think centralizing POC stories around white characters is Hollywood’s way of taking a black or brown story and making it about white people,” he said. “Our culture is full of amazing stories and histories and Hollywood loves to cherry pick what they like but leave out the real nitty gritty including the people who created, interacted, and setup that story.”

Dev Patel in The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. (Twentieth Century Fox/IMDB)
Dev Patel in The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. (Twentieth Century Fox/IMDB)

Sinakhone Keodara, founder CEO of Asian Entertainment Television and host of Asian Entertainment Tonight, wrote that Hollywood’s penchant for using whiteness as a default is “a heinous tradition that is long overdue for a change.”

“Rather than trying to normalize Asian presence on screen to a wide American audience, Hollywood often goes the tired, well-worn and ‘safe’ route of using a white character in an attempt to more easily relate the character to a majority white American audience.  It’s cheap and unnecessary, because the proper and more effective way of relating a character to an audience is writing a character with emotional depth,” he said. “Ethnicity informs and colors our individual and community experiences, but emotion transcends ethnic boundaries.  With political correctness aside, Hollywood needs to stop engaging in a form of neo-emotional and neo-psychological colonialism against people of color, especially Asians by injecting whiteness into our stories.”

“I think that centralizing PoC stories around white characters is always going to happen as long as the people telling these stories are white,” wrote Asia Jackson, an actress, model and content creator. “What Hollywood needs is not only diversity on-camera, but to also make greater efforts to allow filmmakers of color to tell their own stories.”

Jodi Long, an actress who was a castmember of the first Asian American TV sitcom All-American Girl and member of the actors branch of Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, wrote that while whiteness as the default is the reality in Hollywood, a study shows a much needed change in film. “I just saw a new study The Inclusion Quotient done by the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media where the reality in terms of box office is changing, where women and diverse actors in lead roles are now performing extremely well,” she wrote. “Money talks in Hollywood but we still have to get beyond the implicit (unconscious) bias that factors into which projects get greenlit based on outmoded ways of thinking.”

Scarlett Johansson as The Major (Major Kusanagi) in Ghost in the Shell. (Paramount)
Scarlett Johansson as The Major (Major Kusanagi) in Ghost in the Shell. (Paramount)

Kunjue Li, Ripper Street actress and founder of China Dolls Productions Ltd., also addressed how money rules Hollywood, despite Hollywood not making the audience demand actually work for them financially. “I don’t think [whitewashing] is the right thing to do, and second of all, I don’t think it’s very commercial,” she said. “…[I]f they want to sell to Chinese audiences, which is the second biggest film market, then they need to tell a Chinese story…I think you have to tell a Chinese story [with] a Chinese cast.”

“If the film [was] an an American-Chinese co-production, [it would] actually help with the film itself because then it doesn’t have to go through the quota system…which means that only 30 percent of foreign films are allowed to show in China markets every year. If they do it as a co-production, then they get 1/3 of Chinese funding, but they have to have 1/3 of a Chinese [cast]. They’ll have one-third of Chinese funding, they’ll have domestic showings, they don’t have to go through the quota system, it’s much more feasible. Commercially, [whitewashing] doesn’t even work. I don’t understand why people keep doing that.”

Next: The pain of exoticism

3 Ways the Live-Action “Mulan” Film Could Be a Hit, If Disney Listens to the Advice

Disney (Twitter)
Disney (Twitter)

Disney is continuing its live-action bent by making the rumor of a live-action version of Mulan movie true. The studio officially announced that the film, based on the studio’s animated 1998 hit, is in the works. Cue the anxiety, and rightfully so; Asian characters are the least showcased group in movies and in television. The penchant for Hollywood to not only showcase Asian characters, combined with their penchant to whitewash and cast white actors as leads in movies with mostly Asian casts, such as Matt Damon’s The Great Wall, has many people already upset at the prospect of Disney ruining a live-action Mulan film.

To that end, nearly 90,000 people have already signed a petition asking for proper casting when making this film. Social media reacted to the news of the film and the petition like this:

The petition and the sheer amount of signers will hopefully get Disney’s attention. To go along with that, here’s some free advice to Disney when creating this film.

1. Actually cast Chinese and Chinese-American actors. Specifically Chinese and Chinese-American actors.

This seems like it would be common knowledge, seeing how the film’s story is one from Chinese legend. But you never know about Hollywood; they cast Scarlett Johannsson as The Major in Ghost in the Shell after all.

It’s also heavily important that Disney specifically hire Chinese and/or Chinese-American actors. Hiring Asian actors who aren’t Chinese reinforces the idea that the pan-Asian experience is an interchangeable one, when it’s not. Korean culture isn’t the same as Japanese culture, which isn’t the same as Chinese culture. Also, interchanging one Asian actor with another is quite offensive: many Japanese were offended when 2005’s Memoirs of a Geisha cast its main leads with Chinese actresses—Ziyi Zhang, Michelle Yeoh, Li Gong, Tsai Chin. There’s also quite a number of other non-Japanese Asian actors in a film depicting a Japanese story.

Folks on Twitter have given tons of free casting advice to Disney:

It would behoove Disney to actually look at the suggestions and cast accordingly.

2. Hire Chinese consultants (and actually listen to them)

From my cursory research, it is unclear if Disney actually used consultants adept in ancient China, particularly the Tang Dynasty (one of the dynasties it’s believed the Legend of Hua Mulan comes from, as it’s not exactly clear which dynasty the story originated). But if going by this portion of the film’s Wikipedia page says anything:

In its earliest stages, the story was originally conceived as a Tootsie-like romantic comedy film where Mulan, who was a misfit tomboy that loves her father, is betrothed to Shang whom she has not met. On her betrothal day, her father Fa Zhou carves her destiny on a stone tablet in the family temple, which she shatters in anger, and runs away to forge her own destiny…In November 1993, Chris Sanders, who had just finished storyboard work on The Lion King, was hopeful to work on The Hunchback of Notre Dame until Schumacher appointed him to work on Mulan instead…Acting as Head of Story, Sanders grew frustrated with the romantic comedy aspect of the story, and urged producer Pam Coats to be more faithful to the original legend by having Mulan leave home because of the love for her father…This convinced the filmmakers to decide to change Mulan’s character in order to make her more appealing and selfless.

It’s that they either didn’t have consultants or decided against learning from their counsel.

Also showing Disney’s lack of trusting consultants is how dangerously close the “matchmaker” makeup looks to Japanese geisha makeup, as well as the fact that Disney had also hired consultants for their 1995 hit, Pocahontas. However, they didn’t actively use the consultants to make a more historically-accurate film. To quote The Los Angeles Times back in 1995:

“This is a nice film–if it didn’t carry the name ‘Pocahontas,'” says Shirely Little Dove Custalow McGowan, a key consultant on the movie who teaches Native American education at schools, including the University of Virginia. “Disney promised me historical accuracy, but there will be a lot to correct when I go into the classrooms.”

Sonny Skyhawk, founder of the Pasadena-based Ameriacn Indians in Film, is peeved that the film’s producer ignored his offer of help. “With few exceptions, the movie industry hasn’t got it right,” he explains. “And Hollywood has a long track record of not letting us see the product until it’s too late to make a difference.”

If Disney wants a live-action Mulan film to become a success, they should heed the word of Chinese consultants who will be able to steer them in the right direction. Just because Disney is the most powerful studio in the country, if not the world, doesn’t mean it knows everything.

Related: Recapping #WhitewashedOUT and the excitement for “Crazy, Rich Asians”

3. Take the Disney-isms out of this film

This sounds pretty pointed, but all of the quirks that Disney puts in its films need to be gone from Mulan. Disney consistently works from the viewpoint of middle-aged, straight white men “old boys club.” This point of view is something that ailed PocahontasThe Princess and the Frog, and in some ways, Mulan itself, even though they thankfully had the ability to see that Tootsie was not the right way to go with Mulan. To combat this, Disney needs to wake up and see the world outside of its mouse-eared tower. Disney needs to get in the trenches with this film, and make not a Disneyfied version of China, but a family-friendly tale that still adheres to its traditional Chinese roots. Basically, Disney just needs to do its best to make a faithful representation of a centuries-old story that also highlights a well-rounded representation of an often-stereotyped and underrepresented group. It isn’t a lot to ask, in all honesty. The commitment to do this, though, is what’s often the toughest thing for studios to adhere to.

BONUS: Address Shang’s sexuality

We gotta talk about this. When did Shang fall in love with Mulan? She wasn’t ever out of drag for long in the movie, so by just timing alone, it would seem that Shang fell in love with Mulan as Ping. Am I right or am I wrong? Can we ask B.D. Wong, Shang’s voice actor, this question? In my headcanon, Shang is either gay or bisexual. That’s the only way the love story can make sense to me.

Related: Queer Coding: Shang (Disney’s Mulan)

What do you think about the live-action Mulan film? Give your opinions in the comments section below! Also, if you like what I’ve had to say about the importance of consulting, sign up for notification of my upcoming character consulting service, Monique Jones Consulting!