There's something so heartening, direct and charming about Peter Wang's "A Great Wall" (at the Music Hall) that you can practically forgive it anything and ignore almost any flaws.
It has a few, but it's fascinating all the same. Here is the first American movie ever shot in Mainland China--an accomplishment which until recently might have required special diplomatic acts by both governments, if not an escort from the 7th Fleet.
It's not the kind of movie you'd expect from such momentous precedents. It's not a super-historical spectacle with Charlton Heston as Gen. Stilwell. It's not a paralyzed, politically sanitized production with beaming Orientals escorting stalwart, friendly Americans around old Peking, photogenic multicultural youngsters joining hands and staring over the wall toward a new dawn of international brotherhood (accompanied by soft jazz and jing yuen da gu music).
Instead, we get a gentle, often slightly racy culture-clash comedy that respectfully portrays and lightly satirizes both lands. We get Chinese jazz-band renditions of "She'll Be Coming 'Round the Mountain," touch football on the Great Wall and a rousing international Ping-Pong match. Finally and irreverently, the movie ends with gas: The story's climactic shot shows the blissful face of the lead character (Peter Wang as Silicon Valley engineer Leo Feng) as he caps his garden tai chi exercises with a whooshing intestinal exhalation. Of such stuff are cliches of social consciousness definitely not compounded.
"A Great Wall" was co-written and directed by Wang--and co-written and produced by Shirley Sun. (They earlier collaborated on "New Treasures in Old China.") Wang centers his tale on two corresponding families: the Fangs of San Francisco and the Chaos of Peking. The Fangs are throughly Americanized (only Leo, the father, was born in China--and his son Paul refuses to learn Chinese, complaining that the classes don't use Bugs Bunny).
The Chaos are thoroughly imbued in their own culture--though hints of westernization peek through in Li Qinqin's daughter Lili (Mr. Chao, played by Hi Xiaoguang, sometimes amusingly suggests Chairman Mao). But Fang and Mrs. Chao (Shen Guanglan) are brother and sister, and after he gets an unplanned leave--by spilling coffee on his boss--they milk the West-East thaw for a monthlong reunion.
What follows is unsurprising but often remarkably pleasant. You might remember Peter Wang as the wigged-out fry cook with the Samurai Night Fever T-shirt in "Chan Is Missing", and, in "Ah Ying," he was the visiting director from America, charismatic and reticent by turns. His comic touch, like his facial expressions, is askew and elfin. He's got a fey Chaplin quality, leavened with characteristically Chinese earthiness and pragmatism.
Like actor Wang, writer-director Wang never forces anything. He's always alert to cultural anachronisms: Chinese confusion about U.S. venereal disease statistics or the status of Luciano Pavarotti (who, due to local censorship of rock 'n' roll, is believed to be America's reigning pop music star). Wang also has a fine sense of place and a rare ability to reveal character through decor. Each of his quiet camera shots conveys a tranquil, rich mood and atmosphere.
The movie is politic without being too political. Its humor springs from a kind of roguish discretion. It keeps testing the elastic bounds of cross-cultural moviemaking, working out of winks and sly nudges. We see that human privacy is meaningless in China when a mother routinely opens her daughter's letters; we get a whiff of racism in America when Fang is unjustly passed over for company promotion. (In neither instance is the message underlined in red . . . or white and blue. The national is fused with the personal; human insights always outweigh sociological ones.)
Everything is taken easily. The meanings and contrasts seep up without pushing. The most surprising thing about "A Great Wall" is the westernization Wang sees in the Peking youth: their clothes, their casual attitudes, their fascination with the U.S. (At one point, Wang Xiao's Liu gives an impassioned rendition of Lincoln's Gettysburg Address in the Stonehenge-ish ruins of Yuan Ming Yuan park.) Nothing particularly hostile occurs in Peking--it's likely that it wouldn't in real life--despite some jealousy when rakish Paul Feng (Kelvin Han Yee) takes up with the fetching Lili while boyfriend Liu simmers on the sidelines.
It is Paul and Liu who meet in the Ping-Pong finals: a blatant movie-movie coincidence, and one of Wang's concessions to the cute and the convenient. But the film charms you anyway.