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China's epic 'Great Wall' blockbuster draws epic criticism, and officials are not pleased

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'The Great Wall' is the largest ever US-China co-production. The official People's Daily ran an op-ed that lambasted film critics' disdain for the film, but then softened their take in a commentary the following day.

Movie director Zhang Yimou, center, arrives at a red carpet event for the movie "The Great Wall" at a hotel in Beijing, Dec. 6, 2016.
Andy Wong/Associated Press
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Qi Ying had high expectations when she went to see “The Great Wall,” the epic fantasy film starring Matt Damon and directed by Zhang Yimou, one of China’s most acclaimed filmmakers. But she left the theater disappointed.

“It’s not a good movie, but it’s not a bad movie either,” Ms. Qi says while waiting outside a theater in central Beijing to see another film. “Overall I wasn’t that impressed.”

Qi’s underwhelming review is not what the creators of “The Great Wall” want to hear. With a budget of more than $150 million, the film is the largest-ever US-China co-production and the most expensive film ever shot entirely in China.

Still, Qi was more generous than online critics, many of whom have expressed deep disappointment in the film’s thin plot and Mr. Zhang’s turn from low-budget art films to Hollywood-style blockbusters. Some have also complained that the Chinese cast were shortchanged on screen time, while the nods to Chinese culture were superficial at best. One amateur critic went as far as to declare that “Zhang Yimou is dead!” on the Sina Weibo microblog. On Douban, a popular movie review site, “The Great Wall” had a score of 4.9 out of 10 as of Tuesday.

“The Great Wall” is the first major test for Legendary East, the Hollywood studio bought last year by Chinese billionaire Wang Jianlin. It’s also a test for the Chinese film industry as a whole as it tries to garner international appeal and prove that it too can make high-budget action hits.

“This film is certainty a good experiment,” says Raymond Zhou, a senior writer for China Daily and one of China’s most well-known film critics. “But the truth is that there might not be a secret formula for a global hit. Hitting the bullseye in multiple countries could be an impossible task.”

Mythical monsters on a Great Wall

Set in ancient China, “The Great Wall” follows William Garin (Mr. Damon), a European mercenary who helps an army of elite soldiers on the Great Wall fight a horde of mythical monsters. It also features Willem Dafoe, Pedro Pascal, and a host of Chinese stars, including Andy Lau, Jing Tian, and the pop idol Lu Han.

The film’s first three weeks in China have been mixed. While it did manage to climb past the symbolic 1 billion renminbi ($150 million) mark over the weekend, analysts attribute its continued success to weaker-than-expected competition rather than its quality. Many have been unimpressed by turnout given the massive marketing push it received and the high expectations that preceded its release. The film remains far short of the $200 million box office threshold Legendary East ultimately hopes to hit in China.

Criticism of “The Great Wall” and two other much-anticipated releases has been so harsh that the People’s Daily, the official Communist Party mouthpiece, published a guest op-ed last week on its mobile platform claiming that “vicious and irresponsible” review websites were damaging the reputation of the domestic film industry. Chinese media reported that the article, written by a contributor named Zeng Kai, drew heavily from a piece published in China Film News by another contributor named Hao Jiemei.

“Under the guidance of low ratings, audiences may feel disappointed at domestic films,” the article says. “Some will even refuse to watch them.”

The article singled out Douban and Maoyan, another popular review site. It accused them of promoting “vicious and irresponsible statements to attract readers, fans, and web traffic, which has seriously damaged the ecosystem for Chinese cinema.”

The article sparked a fiery online debate about a string of recent high-profile flops that the film industry had hoped would help salvage an otherwise forgettable year at the box office. Many social media users responded to it by arguing that Mr. Zeng misdirected his blame at reviewers and websites instead of the films themselves.

Aside from “The Great Wall,” moviegoers were widely unimpressed by Jackie Chan’s new action-comedy “Railroad Tigers” and the romantic comedy “See You Tomorrow.”

Jonathan Landreth, managing editor of the online magazine ChinaFile and creator of the website China Film Insider, says the People’s Daily incident reveals the need for the Chinese film industry to be more open to criticism.

“If China's film industry leaders are to have any realistic hope of sending their films far and wide,” he says in an email,  “they must insist on a culture of film reviewing independent of government interference that will help both the audience and industry grow and improve."

(The People’s Daily published its own commentary the day after the controversial article ran, calling for similar openness and appearing to pull back from its earlier harsh warnings.)

The debate over online reviews comes amid reports of a stalling Chinese film industry. Box office sales grew by 3 percent last year, far lower than the 49 percent surge in 2015 and the first year in more than a decade that there's been only single-digit growth.

Film industry analysts say the government’s crackdown on inflated box office figures contributed to the drop, as did China’s broader economic slowdown. The downward trend appears likely to continue in 2017. Ticket sales over the three-day New Year’s holiday were down 22 percent from last year, a slow start for the world’s second largest film industry.

“I think it's safe to say that the decade of double-digit growth at China's box office is over,” Mr. Landreth says. “It'll still outpace North American ticket sales in years to come, but China's big growth spurt in theatrical exhibition is finished for now.”

“The Great Wall” is scheduled for release in North America on Feb. 17.

• Xiaoji Qiang contributed reporting.

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