If you’re an American, you’ve probably seen a Zhang Yimou film without realizing it. Back in 2002, the Chinese filmmaker had a crossover hit with “Hero,” his martial arts wonder with Jet Li, Maggie Cheung, Tony Leung and Donnie Yen. You likely saw his handiwork on a smaller screen: He created the phantasmagoric opener to the 2008 Beijing Olympics.
Zhang makes the types of films — grand, beautiful, populist — that pique Hollywood interest. Traditionally, they’d lure him away from his homeland, as they did John Woo, assign him to some blockbuster. But Zhang found a third way. His first Hollywood film is only half a Hollywood film. It’s “The Great Wall,” a co-production between the big American and Chinese film industries. Hollywood provided a producer, screenwriters and star Matt Damon; China provided everything else, including Zhang at the helm. It's the first big movie of its kind, and almost certainly not the last.
If Zhang was ever going to work in Hollywood, he tells us, this was the only way.
“I’ve always been a Chinese filmmaker making movies in China,” he says. “I’ve always waited for an opportunity to do something like ‘The Great Wall’ — a collaborative production.”
The advertisements make “The Great Wall” look like something it's not: a historical epic with Damon stomping about Ancient China. Early responses — and, mind you, just to the ads — became an outrage magnet, drawing charges of “white-washing” and that Damon was yet another “white savior,” like Tom Cruise in “The Last Samurai.” The actual film, though, is nothing of the sort: It’s a team effort, with Damon’s globetrotting ex-soldier absorbing himself into another culture, two nations coming together as one, just like the production itself. It’s also a monster movie.
“This was the first time in my career I’ve made a movie my children love,” says Zhang, chuckling.
Indeed, “The Great Wall” — which finds China’s mighty, color-coded armies defending their border from an onslaught of green reptiles from space, kind of like an 11th-century “Starship Troopers” — may seem like a super-sized version of Zhang’s martial arts movies, like “House of Flying Daggers” and “Curse of the Golden Flower.” But it’s worlds away from the gorgeous period dramas with which he made his name, like 1987’s “Red Sorghum” and 1991’s “Raise the Red Lantern.”