'The Great Wall' Aims to Bridge Hollywood-China Divide

Matt Damon Ponytail - H 2015
AP Images

Matt Damon Ponytail - H 2015

The fantasy epic features Matt Damon and Willem Dafoe alongside a host of major Chinese talent.

Matt Damon sported a new ponytail as he told fans in Beijing about his part in the fantasy epic The Great Wall, a $150 million U.S.-China co-production which could be a game-changer for the world's second biggest film market.

The Legendary fantasy film, which is described as the largest film ever shot entirely in China for global distribution, centers on an elite force making a last stand for humanity on the iconic Great Wall in China.

The English-language movie is directed by Zhang Yimou and is due to finish lensing in August. The global release date is Nov. 23, 2016.

"The reason I took this film on is it is about Chinese culture, which attracted me the most," said Zhang, director of arthouse favorites Raise the Red Lantern, Red Sorghum and To Live. "Even though it is about fighting against monsters on the Great Wall, it still deals with a lot of what I want to express. It includes everything a good film needs  good actors and a good story."

The Great Wall marks Zhang's English-language debut, and is the first blockbuster co-production to shoot in China.

"China doesn’t have a lot of films where monsters are fighting," added the director. "All the monster movies come from Hollywood. How this Western pattern works in China is a challenge for me. It won't be a problem for Chinese audiences."

The U.S. and Chinese film industries will be watching closely to see if the movie succeeds, as it could form the template for future China-Hollywood co-productions. If it fails, it could impact ambitions to develop movies that work both in China and globally, although industry insiders say there is a line up of productions behind The Great Wall hoping to capitalize on its success.

The Great Wall is a co-production between Legendary, China Film Group and LeVision, with Universal looking after global distribution and China Film Group and LeVision taking care Chinese distribution and marketing.

Also attending the news conference were Hong Kong star Andy Lau, Game of Thrones actor Pedro Pascal, actress Jing Tian and Lu Han, former lead vocalist and dancer of Chinese-South Korean boy band EXO, who drew huge crowds of adoring fans. The movie also features Willem Dafoe.

Legendary East is headed up by Peter Loehr, who knows the Chinese industry well having worked as a producer for many years and also having headed up CAA's China operations.

"If everyone else in the world does more [box office] than China, it’s great, if China does more, great, that’s even better," said Loehr. "The outlook from the beginning was, this is an international, English-language movie with Matt Damon and monsters, and it speaks to a specific demographic, and it happens to have Chinese themes."

Damon joked about his role in The Departed, which was a remake of a Hong Kong movie featuring Lau, saying Lau was a better businessman than him because Damon's character died in The Departed but Lau went on to make two sequels.

VFX on The Great Wall will be provided by Industrial Light & Magic and Weta Workshop, while two-time Oscar winner John Myhre is the film's production designer and costumes will be by Avatar designer Mayes Rubeo.