In the movie, Damon stars as a dragon slayer who defeats monsters to help ensure the successful construction of The Great Wall of China.
Damon’s casting had been criticized as the latest instance of a white actor playing the role of an Asian character or in a movie predominantly about Asian characters. Recently, Scarlett Johansson came under fire for playing Major Kusanagi in the upcoming “Ghost in the Shell” while Emma Stone raised eyebrows for playing Allison Ng in “Aloha.”
But Zhang said that this was not the case for Damon’s character.
“Matt Damon is not playing a role that was originally conceived for a Chinese actor,” Zhang said. “The arrival of his character in our story is an important plot point. There are five major heroes in our story and he is one of them — the other four are all Chinese.”
Still, “Fresh Off the Boat” star Constance Wu had taken to Twitter in late July to decry the movie casting as perpetuating the “racist notion that white people are superior to [people of color], and that POC need salvation from our own color via white strength.”
“Our heroes don’t look like Matt Damon. They look like Malala. Ghandi. Mandela. Your big sister when she stood up for you to those bullies that one time,” Wu wrote. “We don’t need salvation. We like our color and our culture and our own strengths and our own stories. (If we don’t, we should).”
Read Zhang’s full statement, as provided to EW, below.
In many ways The Great Wall is the opposite of what is being suggested. For the first time, a film deeply rooted in Chinese culture, with one of the largest Chinese casts ever assembled, is being made at tent pole scale for a world audience. I believe that is a trend that should be embraced by our industry. Our film is not about the construction of the Great Wall. Matt Damon is not playing a role that was originally conceived for a Chinese actor. The arrival of his character in our story is an important plot point. There are five major heroes in our story and he is one of them — the other four are all Chinese. The collective struggle and sacrifice of these heroes are the emotional heart of our film. As the director of over 20 Chinese language films and the Beijing Olympics, I have not and will not cast a film in a way that was untrue to my artistic vision. I hope when everyone sees the film and is armed with the facts they will agree.