Readers of this site are already well aware of the recent kerfuffle over Zhang Yimou's upcoming action fantasy epic, The Great Wall, aka "that film where Matt Damon fights dragons in China." Unlike other Hollywood films with a Great White Savior Complex, The Great Wall is more complicated because it's both Chinese-directed and co-produced (Zhang himself has vigorously defended the film's cultural politics). Regardless, all the news about The Great Wall instantly reminded me of a very different Great Wall, one that also happened to be a Chinese/American co-production and though it was certainly less controversial, it was no less historical: Peter Wang's A Great Wall (1986).
Wang was born in mainland China, grew up in Taiwan, emigrated to the U.S. in the 1970s, and eventually settled in the San Francisco Bay Area by the early 1980s, where he dabbled in theater. That's where he crossed paths with another transplant from Taiwan: filmmaker Wayne Wang, then working on what would become his magnum opus: Chan Is Missing.
The 1982 movie would become the first major -- and in my opinion, still best -- Asian American feature film. Wang (Wayne) cast Wang (Peter) in Chan as Henry, the singing Chinatown chef. He only appears in a couple of scenes but Henry was one of the most memorable characters in the entire film, with his "Samurai Night Fever" t-shirt and penchant for warbling through a rendition of "Fry Me to the Moon" whilst prepping endless wonton soup orders for gwai lo tourists. That gig seemed to have ignited Wang's own filmmaking aspirations and after dabbling in some documentaries, he began to tackle A Great Wall, which he both directed and co-wrote.
The film revolves around two families. The Fengs are from the Bay Area, with Wang casting himself as Leo Feng, a Chinese American who decides to take his second generation Chinese American wife, Grace (Sharon Iwai) and their teenage son, Paul (played by Kelvin Han Yee) with him to Beijing to visit his sister, Mrs. Chao (Guanglen Shen), her husband (Xiaoguang Hu) and their teenage daughter Lili (Qinqin Li). A modicum of hilarity and drama ensue.
A Great Wall is credited as the first American feature to be filmed in the People's Republic of China (it was also co-produced by the China-based Nanhai company). Nixon's visit to Beijing was barely a dozen years prior and relations between the two countries were still thawing after decades of Cold War silence. Therefore, Wang's decision to shoot most of his film in China wasn't simply about being authentic to the plot. In the movie, Leo Feng hasn't seen his sister in 30 years and that would have mirrored the experiences of most Chinese American immigrants -- Wang included.
I don't want to misrepresent the film as some dramatic jeremiad about geopolitical disaffection. Like the early wave of Asian American feature films of the '80s, is a relatively quiet family melodrama at heart, focused on the small, subtle tensions involved in trying to bridge cultural differences and generation gaps. Unexpectedly, much of the film centers on the younger characters -- cousins Paul and Lili and Lili's would-be paramour Yida (played by the late Hong Kong movie star Kelvin Wong in his first major role). The three have strikingly different personalities: Paul is arrogant and a bit of an American cultural chauvinist. Yada is studious and filial but also a dreamer. Lili is restless and unsure about what she wants out of her future. The three form a not-quite-romantic triangle which leads to a showdown over a game of... ping pong. (The conceit plays fine, trust me).
I hadn't watched the film in years but in revisiting it for this essay, I was reminded of how well-crafted it is, least of all for a first-time filmmaker. Wang works with a light touch in most of his scenes, preferring to let his characters perform with a natural, unhurried rhythm. The dialogue is also well-written though I suspect, by contemporary standards, some might find it too "on the nose" at the times. For example, there's an early scene where Grace's white friend is surprised that she doesn't speak any Mandarin and Grace replies, "didn't you know? I'm American!"
However, it's important to remember that A Great Wallemerged at the dawn of Asian American filmmaking and directors/writers had special urgency to try to work in social/cultural/political ideas that, up until then, almost exclusively existed within community circles but rarely outside of it. One of the key points to the plot is how Leo makes time for his family to go to Beijing partially because he's angrily quit his job as a computer programmer after finding out he's been passed over for a deserved promotion in favor of a less experienced, white co-worker. The "bamboo ceiling" is never named as such but it's clear that's what Wang is invoking. There's also small inside jokes about interracial dating and the futility of American-born children taking Mandarin lessons. Peter Wang, like Wayne Wang of that same era, had both good insight and a sense of humor in trying to portray post-1965 Chinese American lives.
Unfortunately, A Great Wall is now obscure enough where it's not available through any VOD service; you'll have to track it down the old fashioned way on DVD (do kids still know about DVDs?) though there might *cough cough* be an unlicensed copy of it online somewhere. Regardless of how you find it, it's worth your trouble to track down even if it has a notable deficit of dragons.
Oliver Wang is an associate professor of sociology at CSU-Long Beach and the author of Legions of Boom: Filipino American Mobile DJ Crews of the San Francisco Bay Area. He has contributed to NPR's All Things Considered, KCET's Artbound, KPCC's Take Two, the New York Times Book Review and Los Angeles Times. He also writes the audioblog, Soul-Sides.com and is co-host of the pop culture podcast, Pop Rocket.