A Great Wall (1986)
Directed by: Peter Wang
After not getting his expected promotion, Chinese-American computer programmer Leo Fang (Peter Wang) pours hot coffee in the lap of his boss and off to unemployment he goes. This sets into motion the planned vacation to go and see his sister Chao (Shen Guanglan) and her family in Beijing for the first time in 30 years. Leo's wife Grace (Sharon Iwai), their son Paul (Kelvin Han Yee) carry with them the Western flavour that will enlighten and occasionally clash with the family. Especially their teenage daughter Lili (Li Qinquin) gets her world spun around in a time where the important collage exam is looming. But trying to spread your wings, gaining individuality is higher up on the agenda after the Western influence has hit...
Viewers of certain Hong Kong cinema got a chance to experience Peter Wang as he co-starred in Allen Fong's award winning Ah Ying in 1983. Taking a shot himself at writing and directing in 1986, the co-production A Great Wall mostly uses Beijing as its locale but the cornerstone of its themes rests equally in the West. Peter preaches simple themes and is a director in the case of this film that favours being a bit scattershot when adding up his themes through his key characters. It does create distance and an ambiguity at times but also this basic, yet crucially real enlightenment as East and West collides makes for involving cinema thematically at least.
Early on featuring scenes in Beijing of Chinese traditions such men at a bathhouse and the sport of Ping Pong, we then see the now Americanized family having adopted very well but obviously trying to stick to Chinese heritage as much as logic suggests. Only missing piece in fact may be that the son Paul needs to learn Chinese but Leo Fang, as much as an easy going guy he seems to be, plays the race card all too often in his life. Not happy with the choice of girlfriend by the son and lashing out at his boss for not promoting him due to Leo being Chinese, he is a character jumping to this wild conclusions way too fast. The trip to the old country, where standards seem lower but in reality isn't equal to misery, will trigger that balanced view on matters grating a character like Leo.
We meet dreamers in Beijing, such as Lili talking of her desire to be a writer and those such as Liu Yida (Kelvin Tong - Moon Warriors) who's only been taught to go to college, find a job, an apartment and boom, life goals achieved. Being content with the basic isn't necessarily wrong but the battery of the youngsters won't run out easily. Especially not when you encounter a Western force of life that challenges you to think outside the Chinese box of traditions. One key and an involving one in Wang's and Shirley Sun's script is how you maintain respect for traditions AND individuality in a Chinese society. Thankfully overall Wang's intentions are uplifting and even lighthearted comedy finds its way into the film.
Witness for instance Mr. Chao's (Hu Xiaoguang) Qi Gong exercise every morning that ends with the world's most relaxed and pleasurable fart and although darker issues of prejudice, racism and condemnation of how certain characters have adjusted to their particular society are evident, the message in Wang's frame is a very pleasurable one. The possible turn off for viewers is Wang's sense of non-urgency and lack of center piece plot. Favouring theme as a driving force, it allows for his frame to feel natural, almost documentary-esque but it's not always this quiethood plays into his favour as the movie can feel a bit ambiguous at times.
A Great Wall merits an thorough examination though because as basic as Peter Wang's themes are, they are also undeniably universal still 20 years after the movie was made. Letting us look intimately in and respecting a society based on tradition and respect, it's not a slap in the face of it to preach individuality and this easily digestible trip Wang takes us onto goes into noble territory that has no problems outweighing the occasional slump. Especially not when the movie essentially ends on a fart.
The DVD (MGM, Region 1):
Video: 1.80:1 anamorphic widescreen.
Audio: Mandarin/English Dolby Digital 2.0 (mono).
Subtitles: English, French, Spanish and English (translation for only the Mandarin dialogue).
Extras: The trailer.
reviewed by Kenneth Brorsson