“Film and travel, as well as the promotion of local culture, are intertwined.” That’s Zhang Yimou’s pitch to international audiences about the crossover appeal of his first English-language film, The Great Wall.

With The Great Wall, Yimou, the visionary behind such Wuxia masterpieces as House of Flying Daggers (2004) and Hero (2002), bridges the gap between Chinese moviemaking and the action-adventure blockbusters of Hollywood. For those previously unfamiliar with his work, Yimou uses The Great Wall to reinterpret Chinese history and culture to gague the attention of a younger Western audience. The film has garnered controversy for its casting of Matt Damon in a lead role that some have said perpetuates “the racist myth that only a white man can save the world,”—an accusation the director has contested.

A tale of heroism and nature-defying warfare, The Great Wall begins with European soldiers searching for valuable black powder deposits in the mountains of Beijing, along the Great Wall. The story takes a fantastical twist when the men discover the deadly, monstrous forces mobilizing for attack on the other side of the wall.

In the clip below, Yimou explains how he incorporates historical elements of the Song Dynasty into the film and blends disparate genres, talents and cultures. For authenticity’s sake, the actors and crew members stayed on location at the Peninsula Beijing Hotel and over the course of shooting, developed a deep knowledge of and appreciation of what Yimou calls “an ancient, iconic city, offering diverse elements of modern flair and heritage. Yimou also shares his personal connection to the material, recalling his visit to the Great Wall the very first Sunday of his study at The Beijing Film Academy in 1978, and discusses his friendship with Damon to reflect on Western actors’ affinity for Chinese culture.

“If this film achieves great success,” says Yimou, “it will open the door to a deeper exchange, and build bridges between the cultures and the film industries of the two countries to be even broader and more extensive.” MM

The Great Wall opens in theaters February 17, 2017, courtesy of Legendary and Universal Pictures.