Peter Wang's 1986 film A Great Wall (also known more verbosely as The Great Wall Is A Great Wall, paraphrasing the famous Richard Nixon quote) offers a slice-of-life drama about culture clash that lesser comedies might squander with easy jokes. Light on laughs and not especially dramatic during most stretches, Wang's film plays it mostly straight while remaining an effective crowd-pleaser with a natural, unassuming quality all too rare among American films. And to be sure, A Great Wall is most certainly an American film: it was the first permitted to be shot in The People's Republic of China, its primary claim to fame and a decent tidbit of knowledge for movie trivia night.
The story goes like this: programmer Leo Fang (Peter Wang, who directed and co-wrote the film with producer Shirley Sun), who has obviously adjusted to life in America after growing up in China, is passed over for what should be a shoe-in promotion; after quitting, he decides to take his wife Grace (Sharon Iwai) and son Paul (Kelvin Han Yee, Milk) on a month-long trip to visit his sister Chao (Shen Guanglan), her husband (Xiaoguang Hu), and their daughter Lili (Qinqin Li, Red Cliff) in Beijing. Naturally, the bulk of A Great Wall deals with both families' exposure to a different culture: it's occasionally played for laughs, but in a completely natural and humanistic way rather than mean-spirited. To its credit, many of the Chinese customs---and for that matter, American ones---are not spelled out for "the other side", which can create a bit of distance. Yet this ultimately seems more invitational than alienating...and if nothing else, A Great Wall provides a valuable snapshot of Chinese and American life three decades ago.
Though it rarely reaches far beyond its modest ambitions, A Great Wall nonetheless has an obvious charm; even if this isn't the kind of film you'll watch regularly, it seems enduring enough to hold up for another few decades. Kino's Blu-ray aims to replace MGM's 2002 DVD: the A/V presentation, while not perfect, is a nice leap forward, although the extras are still lacking. Established fans will be pleased; everyone else should try before they buy.
Quality Control Department
Video & Audio Quality
Presented in its original 1.85:1 aspect ratio, A Great Wall looks reasonably good in high definition. On one hand, it's hard to judge the film's visual merits: I never saw it theatrically or on DVD, so comparisons or comments about its accuracy are impossible. The colors rarely pop but are nicely saturated with even skin tones, although black levels tend to fluctuate a bit---in many cases, they tend to resemble more of a dark grey. Either way, image detail is relatively strong and, despite a few contrast issues and a mild amount of dirt here and there, A Great Wall is at least generally consistent from a visual standpoint. Overall, what's here is largely satisfying if you keep your expectations in check, but I'd imagine that established fans will just be thrilled to finally have it on Blu-ray.
NOTE: The promotional stills featured on this page do not represent the Blu-ray under review.
This Blu-ray's DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mix splits A Great Wall's original one-channel audio into a wider spread with relatively clear dialogue and sound effects. Though limited by its source material in some respects (a very obvious dip in fidelity begins just after the 22-minute mark and lasts about 11 minutes, most likely due to age or storage-related issues), this is otherwise a good presentation that I'm glad wasn't given any kind of faux-surround remix. The dynamic range is decent enough under the circumstances, while Ge Ganru and David Liang's score makes its presence known without fighting for attention. Thankfully, English subtitles are available in two formats: for Chinese translation only, or full SDH subs for translation and English dialogue (the latter of which wasn't offered on MGM's DVD).
Menu Design, Presentation & Packaging
The static menu includes options for playback and chapter selection with quick loading time. This one-disc package arrives in a standard keepcase and includes a nice Booklet
with essays by producer Shirley Sun and film critic Oliver Wang (no relation). Bonus features are otherwise limited to the film's Theatrical Trailer
Peter Wang's A Great Wall has aged better than most films of its era...and the parts that feel outdated are more charming than anything else. It's all thanks to the leisurely pace, honest approach, and purely natural performances, giving the film a relaxed and unassuming quality that makes it easy to watch every so often. It'll obviously mean more if you come from a family with roots in two countries, but outsiders are very much welcome here. Kino's Blu-ray is definitely light: the A/V presentation has a few flaws and the extras are lacking, but established fans of A Great Wall will want to indulge. Newcomers should Rent It first, and they're obviously the wide majority here.
Randy Miller III is an affable office monkey by day and film reviewer by night. He also does freelance design work, teaches art classes and runs a website or two. In his limited free time, Randy also enjoys slacking off, juggling HD DVDs, and writing in third person.