Now 66, veteran Chinese director Zhang Yimou is the man responsible for the 1991 masterpiece Raise the Red Lantern, which was preceded by the equally strong Red Sorghum (1987) and Ju Dou (1990) and followed by the profoundly moving film, To Live (1994). All four films told intense human stories, replete with drama, colour and action, and all four were screened in Dublin, where they became talking points among discerning cinema fans.
"Them were the days," is all this reviewer can say at this point.
"The Great Wall is a Hollywood production, I was asked to direct it," Zhang Yimou recently told the Beijing-based New Paper, while discussing his first English language film. "This is a Hollywood movie with Zhang Yimou touches," he added, admitting that "compromises were made, and I think I made the most compromises on this film in my entire career."
Correspondingly, the film's lead, Matt Damon, has declared that The Great Wall is the biggest movie he has ever been part of and that he had been "chasing Zhang Yimou for 20 years". Chasing him to do what? It's still not clear.
Okay, Damon was blown away by Zhang's storyboards when he first saw them in an office. However, it's a great pity some great storm from out of Manchuria didn't blow away this humdrum piece of CGI overload before the cameras started rolling. Costing $150m (€141m) to make, The Great Wall is the most expensive Hollywood-Chinese co-production ever. But the 'bird's eye view' stuff filmed, as it were, above the heat of immense battle scenes looks cheap and unconvincing, like a bad comic.
Damon plays William, a mercenary who is searching for the much-coveted gunpowder, while Pedro Pascal plays his sidekick Pero. The two are captured by the soldiers of the Nameless Order under suspicion of being enemies, rather than the traders they insist they are.
Willem Dafoe plays the gnarled and wise old hand who stumbled into this corner of The Great Wall decades before the two younger men, who are not meant to come from anywhere too specific. Okay, then, Damon is Caucasian and he can speak a little Spanish to Pascal when required. That's about it in terms of provenance. As for period, forget it.
It so happens that the Nameless Order are being repeatedly assailed at their Great Wall perch by a plague of Brontosaurus-like creatures called Tao Tie. Very soon Damon is proving his mettle as an archer and slayer of the fearsome creatures. Yep, yet again, it's the unlikely American (even if he is never described as such) who ultimately saves the day for these strange foreign folk. (There is also some story that his accent was supposed to be Irish - listen, forget it .. )
Meanwhile, Jing Tian's alluring female general makes eyes that become less forbidding and more doe-shaped at Damon as he gets bolder by the day. The truth is that Jing may be just as powerful an actress as Gong Li, whose magnetic performance lent so much to Raise the Red Lantern.
But how would you know how good she is in this clichéd, overblown slice of tedium which shows no care for mood or pace? So, yes, I am chiefly blaming Zhang (whose name is on it) and I am not really blaming the compromises he may or may not have made to satisfy Hollywood.
Dafoe, Damon and Pascal have no choice but to be undistinguished in their delivery of the wooden screenplay, yet another failed element in what is a dull, formulaic film. I am not sure the kids will buy it either.