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Thursday, September 23, 2021

Watchers of the Wall

The film is an excuse to showcase the expertise of ancient China when it comes to warfare, to the “barbarian” West.

Written by Shalini Langer |
Updated: February 4, 2017 12:10:12 am



Director: Yimou Zhang

Cast: Matt Damon, Tian Jing, Pedro Pascal, Willem Dafoe

IT’S A great, great wall. They are great, great warriors. Facing great, great monsters. With great, great principles. Then come two Westerners, a little greedy but very brave. Well, you know how this will end, even if some of China’s best meet some of Hollywood’s biggest.

The film starts with the two, from somewhere in the undefined West who, after six months of travelling and losing 20 men, now find themselves in the last leg of their hunt for the “black powder” that turns “air into fire”. Presumably gunpowder, a Chinese invention.

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The two, William (Damon) and Pero (Pascal), confront some hill tribes and an unfathomable monster before being captured by ‘The Nameless Order’, which defends China’s Great Wall and its secrets. The brave commander of the Order’s troops is the beautiful Lin (Tian).

The film is an excuse to showcase the expertise of ancient China when it comes to warfare, to the “barbarian” West. The Order fights with gunpowder, cannon balls, arrows that target sound and, beautifully, a bungy-jumping Crane Corps that includes Lin. The corps jumps off the Great Wall holding spears to slay enemies. The term enemies is used loosely here as apparently their only adversaries are monsters called Tao Tei, who invade every 60 years and eat everything dead or alive. The Tao Teis are well conceived, especially their method of communication through vibrations, which their Queen sets forth. However, they are monsters after all, and it’s difficult to care for a battle with so little invested in it.

Pascal, of The Game of Thrones, tries to inject some levity, even if he continuously addresses everyone as “Amigo”, while Dafoe introduces an element of malice into this otherwise virtuous world.

However, every time the film threatens to veer towards emotion, including between William and Lin, Yimou turns it back to yet another attack from the Tao Teis. And yet another detailed, loving look at how the Chinese fought back enemies dressed in elaborate gear, with advanced mechanics, and using clockwork precision. There are many theories as to why the Great Wall was built, the film says at the beginning. That it was built to keep out something like the Tao Teis is fictional, it clarifies. That the film considers the Wall a thing of beauty and mystery is clear. But that the Wall is breachable is evident.

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