The Great Wall might have been marketed as the "Matt Damon rocks a manbun and saves China" movie, but believe me when I say that Damon is far from the standout in the film. That title goes to Tian Jing, a Chinese actor who makes her big English-language debut in the film as Commander Lin Mae. As the most prominent non-white character in the film, the character spends her time kicking ass and taking names, and, if you ask me, she deserved top billing on the movie alongside Damon. The Great Wall's Commander may be deemed a supporting character this time around, but in reality, she's the star of the show.
Commander Lin is the kind of female character not seen very often in action films, or films in general. She is never sexualized, though she does indulge in a flirtation with William. Her body armor has attractive breast plates, and, yes, her outfit is pretty skintight compared to those of the other generals in the Nameless Order, but she's never objectified by the camera. There are no lingering shots on her body or gratuitous nudity; she's filmed with the same respect as the male characters. It's rare for women in action films not to be defined by their gender or sexuality or pushed to the sidelines while their boyfriend takes control (i.e. Megan Fox in the Transformers series, or Gwyneth Paltrow in Iron Man), but Commander Lin is never seen as less valuable in battle because she's a woman.
When we meet her, Lin is a Commander in the Nameless Order, the army tasked with defending the Great Wall against the monsters that await outside. She leads an entire section of female soldiers, known as the Crane Corps, who are tasked with the most dangerous role in the entire army. The women of the Crane Corps are propelled down the Wall to fight the Tao Tei, the monsters on the other side, in what can only be described as hand-to-hand combat. Lin and her soldiers are quite literally on the front lines, and coincidentally also suffer the most casualties. It's a position of sacrifice, yes, but also a position of power, and one that apparently was especially important for director Zhang Yimou. "I really like having strong female characters in my film, so I especially created a unique unit of brave female warriors," he said in an interview with Entertainment Weekly.
Granted, even with the Crane Corps, Lin is the only female character of any substance in The Great Wall — this movie definitely does not pass the Bechdel Test. Yet while that's certainly frustrating, Lin's role within the army is worth celebrating. From the second she meets the man deemed the movie's hero, William (Matt Damon), she outranks him. Even after he proves himself in battle, on the battlefield, she's the one in control. He takes orders from her, and he never questions her ability. In all of their interactions, Lin has the upper hand. Part of this is due to the fact that she is the only high ranking member of the Nameless Order who speaks English. When William is first taken prisoner by the Order, she is the one who translates for him and communicates with him. His life in that moment depends entirely on her and what she chooses to say and not say, and he knows it.
But it's not just William who recognizes Commander Lin's superiority on The Great Wall. As the only woman in power, Lin has the respect of all her fellow Commanders. And (spoiler alert), when she is made General of the entire Order, nobody bats an eye. Lin never has to prove her worth to the men around her. In fact, her position as General means that every man has to prove themselves to her.
Watching The Great Wall, I couldn't help but think about how much more interesting the film would have been if told from Commander Lin's point of view. Who wouldn't want to watch a strong, badass woman beating up supernatural beasts, bridging a gap between cultures and saving the world? Perhaps next time a story like this one in told, characters like Lin will get to take center stage, rather than steal the show from the sidelines.