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Director Zhang Yimou's new film _The Great _Wall is hardly what you would call factually accurate -- but that doesn't entirely mean that it's completely detached from the history of Chinese culture. In reality, the Great Wall was built for trading purposes and defense from human invaders, but the monsters depicted in the film do have a specific connection to the real world via mythos that has been around for thousands of years.
I brought up the subject of the monsters -- identified as Taotai in The Great Wall -- when I sat down to talk with Zhang Yimou at the movie's Los Angeles press day last week. Speaking through a translator, the filmmaker explained the lengthy history of the creatures in Chinese history and how he wanted them to be represented in his film. Said Yimou,
The monster design, the Taotai, is one of the most revered and well-known monsters in Chinese culture. It's been around for thousands of years. And even if you look at the Chinese currency, you'll see the Taotai design on them. That's how much it's in Chinese culture. If you think about American currency, you'd never see a monster on the dollar bill! But it's something we went into with a lot of heart, trying different things.
Going further into those varying approaches, Zhang Yimou said that his work with Weta on the creatures eventually created over 700 designs featuring a wide degree of variety. Certain approaches were apparently quite a bit more fantastical than others, but drawing upon the history of the Taotai in the culture it was determined that the best approach to take would be to make them look terrestrial and realistic:
[We] realized the approach to this movie is realism. [We] wanted to make this movie as realistic as possible. So we referenced a lot of large predators in designing these characters. And he doesn't want it to be so abstract that it looks like it's from outer space. It's got to be something that came from Earth. So you can see a little bit of reference like a Tyrannosaurus Rex. There's a saying in China that the Taotai is the Fifth Son of the Dragon, so you can see that influence over there, and the idea is to make it as real as possible and as realistic and scary.
Scary as the director felt that the Great Wall monsters are in the movie, however, he actually told me that he wishes they could have been scarier. Unfortunately, it was decided that a PG-13 rating was the best way to go for the movie, so they had to tone the designs down to be more family-friendly.
[I] thought the monster could have been even scarier, but the problem is that [we] wanted to come in with a PG-13 rating. So with the PG-13 rating this is the scariest we could be.