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By Christoph Huber
Although arguably the major Asian film event of 2008/2009, John Woo’s colossal Chinese comeback—after a 16-year Hollywood hiatus—has yet to make a dent in the Western world. The reason for that is simple. The two-part costume actioner Red Cliff is based on one of the great classical novels of Chinese literature, Luo Guangzhong’s 14th-century Romance of the Three Kingdoms, which combined historical records with myths and popular stories about the turbulent times near the end of the Han Dynasty and beyond. It has been adapted countless times for numerous forms, including manga and computer games. In 2008, there even was another film version: Daniel Lee’s rather loosely inspired Three Kingdoms: Resurrection of the Dragon, starring Andy Lau.
And so, the reasoning goes, while Asian viewers are familiar with the famous characters, Western audiences supposedly cannot be expected to sort out the multitude of main players and intrigues. Thus, they shall get only about half of Woo’s rendition of the pivotal Battle of the Red Cliffs in the winter of 208/09 AD—the accounts of which vary greatly, with even the location fiercely debated amongst historians; this and any concerns about the differences between film, novel, and historical chronicles (a major point of debate in the films’ Asian reception) are obviously rendered moot by distribution plans. It remains to be seen how the upcoming international version—supposed to condense two times 140 minutes into one two-and-half-hour chunk—will effect another less specialized case of East-West-gradient: namely the curious case of John Woo’s career.
Anointed the king of ‘90s Hong Kong action stylists for his virtuosic action montages in films like The Killer (1989)—feverishly expressionist, but also carefully calibrated towards intense highs—Woo went to Hollywood, where the hacks of the Michael Bay generation were in the process of mercilessly shredding some of his greatest accomplishments to smithereens of near-random impressions. Worse, Hollywood replaced the essential ingredient of Woo’s poetic pathos—a near-forgotten sincerity of feelings, anchoring his protagonists’ moral quest for the righteousness of yi—with assertions of mawkish sentiment and/or cheap irony.
Accordingly, Woo wasted most of his American years on perfunctory television films or star vehicles that he adorned with some of his most obvious visual trademarks (slo-mo shootouts, white pigeons), but lacking the emotional core. The flamboyant retooling of signature Woo elements in Face/Off (1997) even slyly comments on the interchangeability of faces (and figures) in a Hollywood star system governed by increasingly crass market(ing) calculations, whereas the underrated, personal Windtalkers (2002), an unlikely Ford-Fuller fusion pointedly centred on cultural outsiders, was dismissed precisely for its unfashionable straightforwardness—a serious WWII picture that wasn’t grappled with seriously (for that it seems, a few more years and the weight of Clint Eastwood’s name were necessary). No wonder Payback (2003) felt dispiritingly anonymous, even as that reinforced its one quality: understanding that in adapting Philip K. Dick, futuristic decor is only distraction.
While Woo broke box-office records in China returning to the big screen with Red Cliff, the Western world was distracted by the Beijing Olympics: Ironically, just as freshly dethroned box-office champ Zhang Yimou peddled clichéd “Chinese culture” in his opening ceremony, Woo’s film-double was deemed unsaleable for similar, but less watered-down qualities—the release of Red Cliff 2 in early 2009 was hardly registered in the west. But irony is the enemy of the “primitive” purity and poetry of Woo’s art, now realized on a scale as monumental as late David Lean without noticeable dilution. Achieving this personal triumph within the pressures of what is reportedly—at $80 million—the most expensive Chinese-language production is impressive, and also testifies to Hollywood’s restrictions: Woo’s four previous US movies cost no less (except Payback, at “only” 60), yet even Windtalkers hardly matches the scope and intense directorial flair of Red Cliff.
The crucial elements of Woo’s filmmaking are rhythm and emotions, not plot. So while the tactical alliances and battle plans in Red Cliff are remarkably intricate, the film’s greatness has more to do with how Woo orchestrates them. Naturally, his thematic and visual obsessions reappear, since the present-day worlds of his tales of chivalry among cops and criminals were ostensibly transposed from the jiang hu of noble and nefarious swordsmen in Chinese historical myth. The setup is David versus Goliath (and retains a dash of contemporary allegory): A powerful prime minister (Zhang Fengyi, impressive) from the North battles a much smaller, but resourceful union of Southlanders (with Tony Leung Chiu-wai and Takeshi Kaneshiro as main strategists moving through the characteristic push-pull of Woo’s male couples). Already the grandiose opening montage detailing the prime minister pressuring the emperor into commissioning his campaign makes clear that the story’s meaning will be carried by the flawlessly orchestrated flow of images, rather than the other way round. These first impressions—a bird’s message, a human sacrifice, the importance of waiting before choosing—will be recurring and decisive aspects of the tale.
Especially in the first film, Woo weaves incidents together with astonishing dexterity, proving himself a worthy heir of the Kurosawa-Peckinpah tradition of superior dialectic montage and movement. Using different speeds he achieves a compulsive flow, making connections gracefully, yet forcefully: between violent bouts and thoughtful planning, intimate observations and large-scale impressions. Huge numbers of soldiers are rearranged into strict geometric patterns with a paradoxical sense of kinetic and balletic movement; the deadly projectiles and terrifying shield walls of Kagemusha’s (1980) finale are reconfigured for a labyrinthine lockdown in a staggering set piece some two hours in. Revealing the pattern of this tactical trap to be identical to a turtle shell, the scene’s breathtaking capper not only demonstrates Woo’s adeptness at conceptualizing—giving strategic procedures and detailed deliberations its due, much of this action film is about inaction— as well as the connective tissue of his own associative strategy. The sweeping camera cranes, careful choreography, and split-second editing establish a sense of harmony between man, things, and nature. (The opening credits unite stone, sword, and sun; meanwhile, music and other arts are used repeatedly for rhyming effects in Woo’s patented wallops of parallel montage.) For in the end, Woo intends a Gesamtkunstwerk where breathtaking mountain vistas and vast armies decorating them are of no more importance than the proper sound of a flute or the legs of horse during breech birth.
But can, as one subplot spells out, the art of war and the art of tea really go together? The first installment is a colossal crescendo towards a rousing cliffhanger, so Red Cliff 2 has to serve up the big battle: its structure and satisfactions are more conventional, but the overall conception is as remarkable. This time, the opening credits are a reprise: a quick succession of flashbacks, which in turn freeze to cloth-like frames that are ripped apart (sound of a swift sword stroke)—a device then utilized in the film, whose staccato developments thus gain an old serial’s whiplash propulsion, even as the fight is delayed for another hour. The off-balance effect is striking: there’s a sense of paradise lost and (temporarily) regained, fitting into the complexly rendered expression of Woo’s theme of redemption. Which may explain how in the end he manages to achieve his characteristic Mexican standoff, even with swords—and also a particularly nuanced manifestation of yi.
Still, the manifold nuances of this epic only come to life through the interaction of its meticulously weaved strands and the compelling rhythms of its movements; it seems inconceivable that a shortened international version will do this outstanding historical epic justice, especially considering how Peter Chan’s sturdy, Woo-influenced period picture The Warlords (2007) just suffered considerable losses when being cut only some 20 minutes. Of course, many great films—including The Seven Samurai (1954) and the collected works of Sergio Leone, a touchstone for Woo—endured even as they were first released in distorted international forms. But cutting half the runtime recalls the one Leone film where such a procedure was disastrous: the nearly incomprehensible US recut of Once Upon a Time in America (1984). Like that masterpiece, Red Cliff acknowledges the importance of time: If there is poetic justice, time should be on its side as well.