Zhang Yimou makes his mark on Hollywood with The Great Wall
Zhang Yimou went with the blockbuster formula for The Great Wall, but he included his own touches
Zhang Yimou is not a man who minces his words when it comes to defending himself.
The acclaimed Chinese film-maker came under fire for pandering to the Westerners in his first English language film, The Great Wall.
Zhang, 65, was also criticised for casting US actor Matt Damon as the lead and accused of "whitewashing", the casting of Caucasian stars in roles that are historically of other ethnicities.
"The Great Wall is a Hollywood production. I was asked to direct it," Zhang told The New Paper over the phone from Beijing.
"This is a Hollywood movie with Zhang Yimou touches."
He added that the film had been in production for many years before it came to him. Edward Zwick of The Last Samurai fame was initially attached to direct it in 2012.
The film is about a mythical legend in which China has to defend itself against marauding monsters called Tao Tei, which invade every 60 years. The Wall was thus built, and armies raised, to defend the country.
Damon plays William, a mercenary who is in China to look for gunpowder.
Along with sidekick Pero (Pedro Pascal), he was captured by The Nameless Order, an army of soldiers stationed at the Wall. While imprisoned, they witness a massive Tao Tei attack.
Compromises were made, and I think I made the most compromises on this film in my entire career.The Great Wall director Zhang Yimou
The Great Wall, which opens here tomorrow, also stars Andy Lau, Willem Dafoe and Chinese starlet Jing Tian.
Zhang, who directed classics such as Red Sorghum (1987) and Raise The Red Lantern (1991), as well as martial arts flicks Hero (2002) and House Of Flying Daggers (2004), said: "Hollywood has always been making such monster invasion movies, such as Jaws and Godzilla.
"There is always a formula - monster attacks, hero rises, they fight, more monsters come, then of course, the hero wins.
"I cannot change the Hollywood formula. I cannot make this movie a pure Zhang Yimou film. Then they won't make it."
The script, which is based on an original tale by Zwick, Max Brooks (World War Z) and Marshall Herskovitz (Jack Reacher: Never Go Back), had already been completed when the project landed on Zhang's lap.
"I only added in more Chinese elements to make it appealing to the Chinese moviegoers.
"I told them that since the story takes place in China, it must be told from the Chinese viewpoint," said Zhang.
He explained that while he had the liberty to incorporate more Chinese details, he had to "stick to the story so that it has the blockbuster feel".
"It was like doing taiji. Compromises were made, and I think I made the most compromises on this film in my entire career," he said.
Zhang was quick to add that compromises "are normal in film-making - it will forever be that way".
At US$150 million ($217 million), The Great Wall is the most expensive and biggest Hollywood-Chinese co-production to date.
Apart from the compromises, Zhang faced challenges in navigating what he called the "United Nations" set.
"We had people from 37 different countries working on this film. Many translators were used. It is good that they are all professionals," he said.
Zhang was able to select his cast, and Damon was his first choice.
"He is my favourite actor. I have watched all his films," Zhang said.
"For a long time, I have wanted to work with him, so this is like a dream come true."
Zhang added that Damon's acting style fits his role well.
"Matt is very manly, and he does action very well," he said.
"And who doesn't want to have Jason Bourne to help save the day?" he added, laughing.