After achieving huge success in Hong Kong with now-classics such as The Killer (1989) and Hard Boiled (1992), John Woo was lured to the U.S., where he made a slow wave of action films – Hard Target (1993), Broken Arrow (1996), Face/Off (1997) - before Hollywood and its narrow-minded producers ran out of ideas, and Woo seemed to struggle in finding a story that met his needs – creative and commercial – and kept him active. Paycheck (2003) was the last action project, whereas in Windtalkers (2002) he strove to create an epic war film with social meaning, but was confounded by a poor story and weak characters.
It perhaps makes sense that aside from a few odd projects – a segment of BMW’s The Hire series (2002) as well as an aborted TV series pilot in 2004, Woo stepped back and sought out an existing project with more resonance than a formula war or action film.
Based on the ancient romantic novel “Romance of the Three Kingdoms” by Guanzhong Luo, the story had been filmed before in 1995 as a TV series, as well as a severely compacted feature film in 2008 (Three Kingdoms: Resurrection of the Dragon) – the latter perhaps a quick cash-in, taking advantage of the publicity surrounding the production of Woo’s two-part version.
What’s most striking about Red Cliff – Part 1 (Chi bi) was released in 2008, and Part 2 (Chi bi xia: Jue zhan tian xia) in 2009 – is that it’s a perfect marriage between Woo’s recognizable style, his strengths with action and poetic nuances, and the long-form historical epic with expansive characters and relationships.
The film’s running time of nearly 5 hours (each part runs 2 hours and 25 mins.) is certainly daunting, but it doesn’t take long for the drama to click with western audiences unfamiliar with the battle of Red Cliff where three kingdoms battled for control of the land and its people between 208 A.D., and the end game was won through an alliance of southern kingdoms and warlords who used a combination of brilliant tactics, patience, and natural elements to beat northern aggressors lead by a powerful leader on behalf of the weak-willed emperor, thereby ending the Han Dynasty.
Magnet Releasing, with director Woo, created a 2.5 hour version of the film purely for North American audiences, and initial reviews describe a compacting of events with a focus on the battle scenes – but it’s rather unfortunate someone decided American and Canadian audiences (which includes a generous Asian contingent) would’ve balked at the full version, because what undoubtedly had to be shorn or trimmed from the two parts were subtleties in characters, locations, soldier training, marital life, relationships among soldiers and their families, and moments that humanize all members of the kingdoms.
There’s also the small forgotten fact that Shogun, another historical work with a huge array of Asian characters, had no problem in becoming a huge success. Granted, as a TV mini-series with pre-episode recaps, the series was easier to follow, but Woo and his fellow three screenwriters manage to sort out the relationships after the first half hour; the use of British English for the subtitles – using terms like Prime Minister and Viceroy – as well as familiar governmental and familial hierarchies wouldn’t have made the full version confusing.
Red Cliff doesn’t demonize anyone; the northern Prime Minister Cao Cao (Fengyi Zhang) is brutal and stern in executing suspected traitors, but there’s much to admire in his administrative skills and use of surrendered warlords who comprise part of his massive, 800,000 army. He also respects his soldiers, and adores life on the road with his men, matching wits with worthy opponents as he achieves greater control of more land and more people.
There’s also the alliance between Sun Quan (Chang Chen) and Liu Bei (Yong You) that requires extra details to understand the need for both to cooperate in order to save themselves. Moreover, the material in the first half emphasizes how no one man is responsible for victory; it’s achieved per battle through the efforts, ingenuity and creativity of everyone, and these virtues are dramatized without the type of cliché typical in western dramas. (i.e.: there’s no ‘little Timmy,’ a poor half-wit boy who shows his man streak by saving lives through self-sacrifice and a long, bathos-drenched death scene.)
Perhaps the only dramatic license is in the role of Yu’s sister Sun Shanxiang (Wei Zhao), a tomboy who manages to fluidly sneak into Cao Cao’s encampment opposite of the Red Cliff battle zone, and gather strategic information while dressed as a male soldier, and sneak back to her base without harm. However, her character, as well as her rebellious manner, gives the film some humour as each dramatic set of sequences tend to be punctuated by a grand battle
Woo, with his crack team of second unit directors (and stunt director Corey Yuen) mount and choreograph some spectacular battle scenes that also don’t repeat nor recycle information or motifs.
The opening clash introduces the film’s most exuberant warriors and generals through one-on-many combats, whereas subsequent battles emphasize unique military planning and execution. A major highlight is a turtle-like pattern which the allies use to lure their aggressors before snapping shut all entry points, and like a puzzle box, opening and closing areas to slice and dice the opposition. It’s a sequence as grand, giddy, and illuminating as Sergei Bondachuk’s aerial and ground-level coordination of forces in Waterloo (1970), except with a special emphasis on warrior heroics and hubris.
The film’s finale is undoubtedly spectacular, but the smaller battles are just as intriguing and kinetic, particularly the wittily executed method by which strategist Kong Ming (Takeshi Kaneshiro) manages to ‘find’ 100,000 arrows for the allies after Liu Bei has chosen to leave the alliance when his men are afflicted by a deadly outbreak of typhoid. The onslaught of the disease is also part of the psychological warfare Cao Cao uses against his enemies, and a ploy that backfires by making the smaller forces determined to win the battle and ensure their autonomy – or die trying.
Cao Cao’s juvenile fancy for Yu’s wife Xiao Qiao (Chiling Lin**) is also given careful balance, since even the Prime Minister knows his battle against the south isn’t because he wants to claim a woman he recalls from his past as his own, but to create a warlord-free land with a simplified governmental system – making him seem like a brutal uniter rather than power-monster.
Qiao’s devotion to her husband is conveyed through poetic scenes of affection, as is Cao Cao’s brief moment of humanism when he attempts to stir up hope among a disease-affected troupe by revealing his own son’s weaknesses – perhaps a veiled explanation of his power scheme to simplify the world so his ill son has less to worry over when he takes over.
Both battles and ancient scenery are a balance of real and digital effects, and enough care went into the details so the film is both a romanticized recreation of ancient China as well as a period piece. Where Woo supercedes his contemporaries and more commercial-minded directors is in crafting battle scenes that do not play out like video game sequences. The combat choreography is kept intact, the performances vivify the characters, and Woo is able to insert small personal fetishes – a warrior’s fight with a baby strapped to his back recalls Hard Target, the poetic and functional use of doves – without warping the drama.
The cinematography is equally beautiful in balancing shots of nature, iconography and battles (particularly combat techniques with specific weaponry), and Taro Iwashiro’s orchestral score supports and clarifies character relationships, as well as humanizes the battlefield where each side is shown to be defended by heroic men.
Perhaps novices to historical epics may find the shorter version easier to digest, but fans of the genre are well served in tracking down the original two part version in overseas DVD and Blu-ray editions. A better (albeit less likely) venue to see the film in Region 1 land would be on the big screen, where Part 2 should not be taken as a sequel, but the second half of a lengthy, complex story.
Producer Terence Chang is quoted in the film’s press kit as saying, “We wanted to make a Hollywood blockbuster in Chinese that would appeal to non-Asian audiences as well. We worked very hard to create a version of the film that maintains the integrity of the action and character development of the story, while excising some of the cultural details that could be considered unnecessary for Western audiences not intimately familiar with the historical mythology.”
There are no unnecessary cultural details in the unexpurgated Red Cliff. It’s five hours of your life, but not one second will be wasted.
© 2010 Mark R. Hasan