Saturday, May 15, 2010

Rocky Mountain High (John Woo's Red Cliff)

For all of its gazillions of dollars, technological innovations, and offerings of new patients to ophthalmologists everywhere, world cinema's latest "game-changer" may turn out to be not big blue Avatar but Red Cliff, John Woo's deliriously epic spectacle that smashed box-office records in China and barely made a blip on screens in the States. The version that appeared in most art-houses here was sliced and diced from 290 minutes down to 148, which -- to paraphrase a favorite line from Walk Hard -- wasn't half the movie the top half of the original movie was even after they cut it in half. Luckily for us, the two-part, full-length "International Version" is now available on Netflix, and if seeing it at home is a little like viewing Lawrence of Arabia through a periscope, it's still by far the most exhilarating experience I've had watching a movie all year.

Ironically, the fun of the film derives from something that's always bugged me about Woo -- as a critic once noted, the sense that he approaches every cinematic cliche as if he's never seen one before. I was well sick of his action-thrillers by the time Mission: Impossible II and Paycheck rolled around, to the point where I hoped I never saw guns and doves together in the same frame again. Woo was wise to take a break, return to his roots and tackle a different genre. There's nothing new on the surface of Red Cliff, a swords-and-horses extravaganza with echoes of Lord of the Rings, Braveheart, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, and plenty of other films released over the last decade. What matters is it's all new to Woo. Painting on a large canvas clearly excites him, and he renders the experience every bit as fun as Ridley Scott and Russell Crowe make it a chore.

Red Cliff is a film propelled by its villain: Cao Cao (the outstanding Fengyi Zhang), ambitious prime minister of the 3rd-century A.D. Han Dynasty, manipulates the young emperor to declare war on the neighboring Wu kingdom governed by the relatively temperate Liu Bei (Yong You). In the first major battle sequence, Cao Cao's army encounters heavy casualties at the hands of Liu Bei's commanders, a trio of super-warriors that could have stepped out of a Kurosawa picture. (The wire-work isn't overdone; it just there enough to make you laugh.) One of them uses shields to reflect the sun on a cavalry charge in a moment that easily trumps a similar scene from Braveheart; another rescues a baby in a frantic sequence that becomes a clever homage to Hard-Boiled. The Han forces turn out to be too massive to overcome, yet it's notable that Liu Bei's primary concern is protecting the throngs of refugees evacuating the battlefield. Although Red Cliff is based on an ancient Chinese tale (The Romance of the Three Kingdoms), the notion that a ruler would find responsibility in taking care of his own people is, one might suggest, downright visionary.

The Han invasion prompts a hasty alliance between the Wu and Xu kingdoms, the latter of which is led by the capable yet insecure ruler Sun Quan (Chang Chen, who played the charismatic bandit in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon). Liu Bei and Sun, however, become supporting characters as their respective military strategists take centerstage: the eerily prescient, fan-waving Zhuge Liang (a wonderful performance by Takeshi Kaneshiro), and the stoic, music-loving Zhou Yu (Tony Leung). Kaneshiro and Leung never interacted as the nameless cops in Wong Kar-Wai's Chungking Express, which Woo seems hellbent on rectifying here. The heart of Red Cliff is the growing bond between these two men, often framed together in tight close-ups where they valiantly stare each other down without cracking a smile. (Both, as Jerry Seinfeld would observe, are "close-talkers.") Zhuge and Zhou never stop reminding us that their alliance could turn adversarial at any moment, a forced tension that's never wholly convincing given the palpable guy-love they feel for each other. (In case we miss the subtext, Zhou's wife -- played by Chiling Lin -- points out after an impromptu musical recital between the pair that her husband "hasn't played his qin in a long time.")

Despite his usual macho-centrism, Woo fares well with a couple of key female characters: Xiao Quiao (i.e., Mrs. Zhou), who figures prominently in the closing act, wielding nothing more than a cup of tea; and Li Ji (Jia Song), the spunky Xu princess who goes undercover as a male soldier and befriends a likably dimwitted Han commander. A few of these plot threads get a little tangled in the second half of Red Cliff; for a while, Woo seems to lose the focus and momentum that he achieves in the first half. Just then, though, Cao Cao rouses his weary, typhoid-afflicted troops for the final battle. Cao Cao may have a name that unfondly recalls the Star Wars prequels yet he has all the personality a George Lucas creation lacks, cunning without being superficially evil. Inspirational speeches are nothing new in this kind of movie, but it's a kick that the one we hear in Red Cliff is delivered by the bad guy.

Woo's staging of the battle scenes isn't without glitches. There were a few instances during the grand "tortoise formation" set-piece -- at the end of Part I -- where I had no idea who or what I was looking at. Woo could use some of Peter Jackson's clarity. Yet as much as I admired The Lord of the Rings, its Orcs and Elves and Hobbits and Wizards kept me at a degree of emotional distance. (The moments that registered strongest for me came from the less fantastical Viggo Mortensen, Miranda Otto and Bernard Hill.) Red Cliff, for all its dazzling size and daunting scope, is still rendered on a very human scale. By now we've all grown accustomed to Hollywood's disinterest in people; even James Cameron, who has always populated his blockbusters with memorable characters, suggested (rather depressingly) at the climax of his last film that our collective destinies lie as avatars inside a computer screen. The everywhere-but-here success of Red Cliff, though, suggests a compelling alternate fate, one where we are no longer privileged stars at the center of the universe but now have to fight for screentime.


Steven Santos said...

Thank you for writing this piece because I think this film deserves more attention than it received.

I watched this last weekend and hope to write about it myself. After just the one viewing, I believe this may be John Woo's masterpiece.

And yet I'm miffed because this was a true cinematic experience that I had no choice but to watch on my television screen. What makes matters worse is that Woo's film will no doubt represent the type of grand-scale filmmaking that blockbusters coming out this summer will not come close to achieving.

"Zhuge and Zhou never stop reminding us that their alliance could turn adversarial at any moment, a forced tension that's never wholly convincing given the palpable guy-love they feel for each other."

This tends to pop up in all Woo movies to the point that I would almost classify his films as love stories about men. By now, I don't consider this forced tension, as much as I think they flirt with one another through playful threats.

Hokahey said...

This film certainly deserves the enthusiasm you express here - even the shortened version I saw in a theater last December. The battle scenes are amazing on the big screen - and although it was hard to sort out the large cast of generals and lords and ministers sometimes, I didn't feel anything essential was missing from the 148-minute version. The battles were certainly long enough! Great movie! Great cinematic fun!

Craig said...


I agree, if any movie cries out for the big screen, it's this one. The general indifference toward "Red Cliff" if yet another example of what irks me about our culture -- that if you've "never heard of that movie," then it couldn't possibly be worth seeing. The lack of interest in adventure or discovery is truly pathetic. With cinema on the rise in China and elsewhere, "Red Cliff" is also the kind of film that I think we're ignoring at our peril.


Great to hear from you! I'd forgetten you had seen the shorter version during its theatrical release, of which I'm envious for the battle scenes alone. From what I gather, though, it wasn't those sequences that got cut; it was the quieter, character-building scenes, and those add a lot to the experience. Imagine "Lawrence of Arabia" if they blew through the desert as if they were on Humvees, instead of getting a sense of the time it takes to travel from one end to the other.

Edward Copeland said...

You know I thought it was amazing. I'm glad to read another well-written piece is now out there spreading the word about this great film.

Craig said...

Thank you for drawing my attention to this film, Edward. Your review noted some things mine didn't, namely the importance of the elements in all the battle scenes (as well as in the bravura, uproarious sequence where Zhu-ge acquires thousands of arrows). The combat sequences are beyond awesome, yet it's the attention to the characters (about a dozen prominent ones) that make the picture work. Woo must have enjoyed shooting close-ups as much as the big spectacle moments; lots of great mugs in that cast, from top to bottom.

Victoria Dixon said...

It was amazing Edward, and thanks for covering it. I haven't read all your comments, but I wanted to make one correction in case no one else has. The baby scene in Hard Boiled is actually an homage to the original events Red Cliffs is based on. Woo commented in one of his many interviews that he loved the scene from Romance of the Three Kingdoms so much, he wrote it into Hard Boiled, but he always wanted to do the original story. I'm delighted he has. I've got to write my own review of this film now that I've finally had a chance to see it on my so not-huge 36" t.v. LOL

Craig said...

Ah! Thank you, Victoria. Great piece of trivia. I had no idea.