Cross-cultural storytelling

The Great Wall trailers

The Great Wall is a blockbuster movie that was funded, directed and shot in China but features the world’s most bankable Hollywood star in the hope of reaching a truly global audience. And with the number of foreign films granted release in China still restricted to approximately 34 a year, this movie could be the start of a new formula that we should all get used to.

This February sees the global release* of a cultural and economic phenomenon that could reshape our media landscape for many years to come.

So what can marketers learn from the trailers that have preceded the release? What do they tell us about cross-cultural storytelling? And how might we apply these lessons to tailor our global content for local audiences?

The first ninety-second, English language trailer follows the conventions of a fantasy war movie, akin to The Lord of the Rings trilogy. It features Matt Damon heavily, I counted eleven times, going into battle with some Chinese comrades against what appears to be an army of dragons.


The Chinese cut features many of the same set pieces, but has a markedly different tone and reading.

For example, the Chinese trailer takes longer to build up suspense, as the menacing strings brood around an epic landscape. Damon, while still prominent, is now part of a gang of heroes, all A-list Chinese stars in their own right, as we see more of what appear to be five armies that have gathered together to fight the dragon threat.


These editorial decisions reflect some cultural differences in storytelling.

Our Western brains are programmed from early childhood to recognise the hero’s journey, as our brave protagonist is convinced to set off on a noble quest.

In traditional Chinese stories, more time is given to context and duty, as we consider the events that shaped the man: how did he reach this point? How was he affected or antagonised? And what should be our collective response?

This leads to a different narrative, where the focus is not singular and linear, but collective and contextual, an idea that is also reflected in the promotional posters.


But crucially, an overt ideological point is made in a quote that is notable and consistent across both trailers. As Matt Damon’s character tells us, “I was born into battle. I fought for greed, and Gods. This is the first war I’ve seen worth fighting for.”

Many fictional superheroes have similar creeds but in this context, where an American hero is defending The Great Wall of China, this message signals a broader requirement: that to succeed creatively in China, you must first recognise and respect their cultural sensitivities.

*The Great Wall was released in China and other Asian markets in December and comes out on February 16 in Australia.