May 12, 2009


The summer behemoths are upon us, and it’s impossible to look away. They leer at us from every billboard and fast food collector’s cup, daring us to ignore them and get shut out of the pop-culture conversation. They know we’ll cave, god bless their arrogant little hearts. So before I watch the shiny new Star Trek, and get sucked into the vortex of box office predictions and whiplash inducing action sequences, I wanted to put a kind word in for another blockbuster that has yet to reach our shores, John Woo’s epic two-parter, Red Cliff. Part 1 is already the highest-grossing film in China’s history, and the sequel came close. Released six months apart in July ’08 and January ’09, they’re a rousing adaptation of the Romance of the Three Kingdoms , a historical novel detailing the end of the Han dynasty.

The production marks Woo’s triumphant return to Chinese cinema after a decade-plus in Hollywood. He set the template for 90s action films with his HK triumverate of The Killer (1989), Bullet in the Head (1990), and Hard Boiled (1992), and it’s hard to overstate his impact – everybody from Michael Bay to the Wachowski Bros. to Hype Williams lifted his highly choreographed pistol operatics.  His kinetic talents were generally wasted in the states, despite some individual flourishes in Face Off and Mission Impossible 2. An artistic breakthrough came with Windtalkers (2002), his most overlooked, and his best American film. There’s a narrative density here that looks forward to the intricate relationships of Red Cliff, laid over his matchless skill for choreographing large battle sequences. His concern with professional male relationships remains, as Nicholas Cage’s tetchy marine and Adam Beach’s Native American code writer test their loyalties and reach an uneasy alliance, just as Chow Yun-Fat and Tony Leung did in Hard Boiled. Only here it’s set against a shifting WWII backdrop and a far more disparate array of characters.

Red Cliff is an extension and near-perfection of this epic-intimate moviemaking, using the personal friendship/rivalry between Tony Leung (as Zhou Lou) and Takeshi Kaneshiro (as Zhuge Liang) as the fulcrum from which to leap into the massive tale of the war of the Three Kingdoms. The plot concerns the immature Han emperor giving license to a dictatorial general, Cao Cao (Fengyi Zhang), to subdue the Western and Southern regions of the country, which were otherwise peaceful. Zhou Lou is the viceroy of the southern state, Wu, while Zhuge Liang is the military strategist for the kingdom of Xu, in the West. The two regions form an alliance in order to fend off Cao Cao. An interesting element introduced by Woo and his fellow screenwriters is that of parallels to modern counterinsurgency theory.

The head of Xu emphasizes protecting the civilian population at the expense of winning an initial battle, while Cao Cao’s imperial ambitions have him waging a pure counterterrorist operation – his only intent is killing and capturing his opponents, not winning hearts and minds. There is also commentary about Cao Cao’s overstretched and overworked army, some of whom just work for money (a nod to Blackwater, etc.) If one were to take a US-centric reading of the film, Cao Cao would represent U.S. military strategy under Gen. George Casey and Rumsfeld, and Zhou Lou and Zhuge Liang the strategy of Gen. Petraeus and Robert Gates. Judah Grunstein takes this tack at World Politics Review.

While to take the film as a straight-up allegory of U.S. policy would be overly simplistic, it certainly places paramount importance on military strategy generally. Kaneshiro’s character never engages in battle, but his ingenious war plans make him a major figure in the film. Red Cliff places great emphasis on this kind of tactical preparation, and every fight is preceded by thorough examinations of the battlefield and different modes of attack. It’s a very grounded vision for a historical epic, but it is also what gives the war scenes such lucidity – Woo makes them battles of the mind as much as of the body.

The script balances these two forces in the bodies of Kaneshiro (mind) and Leung (body). Leung is the gallant leader, expert swordsman and diplomat, while Kaneshiro always stands to the side, trying to predict Cao Cao’s every move. Woo consistently carves out different spaces for them on screen, separating them in dramatic symmetrical compositions like the ones below. Zhuge Liang and Zhou Lou are well aware throughout that after Cao Cao is defeated, their two nations will immediately be in competition – it is this kind of subtlety that adds richness and deviousness to their relationship.


Once the battle scenes begin, Woo’s old choreographic mastery comes to the fore. In an ingenius bit of visualization, Kaneshiro, perched high above, witnesses an infantry troop exercise. When massed, the camera cuts in to his POV, and his feathered wing fan flashes out before us to cover the troop formation in its exact dimensions.

Later, Kaneshiro is shown holding a small tortoise, which later proves to be the inspiration for a large operation where troops use their shields to form an improvised shell, decimating the opposing cavalry with devastating spear blows thrust from inside. These nature/war formation metaphors point to the importance of nature (topography, etc.) and the elements to any fight, and the final, incredibly bloody finale depends entirely upon the direction of the wind. This is a clever structure, a few visual notes emphasizing nature foreshadow the plot function (the wind) that will become so important later.

I’m only scratching the surface of this 4 1/2 hour work. I haven’t mentioned the atonal samisen jam, the wonderful performance by Wei Zhao as an impish princess who turns out to be a resourceful spy, the lively caricatures of Xu’s generals, and the ingenious way Zhuge Liang supplies 100,000 arrows (fog and scarecrows are involved). It’s surprising how rich the film turned out under less than ideal production circumstances. Famously, Chow Yun-Fat pulled out (he was to play Zhou You) before shooting began, and tragically, a stuntman died and six were injured during a particularly dangerous action sequence. Producer Terence Chang bemoaned his choice of special effects crews (which are, admittedly, subpar), and the script took years to write.

That a work of art was produced out of this is an incredible accomplishment, and hopefully Sony Pictures finds it in their hearts to release it stateside.  It was rumored that it would be released in a condensed, 2 1/2 hour version, but now even those murmurs have ceased. UPDATE:MAGNET FILMS (A SUBSIDIARY OF MAGNOLIA), HAS JUST PICKED UP RED CLIFF FOR DISTRIBUTION IN THE US. IT WILL RELEASE A CONDENSED 2 1/2 HOUR VERSION IN THEATERS (boo!), AND THE COMPLETE FILM ON DVD AND VOD).  In any case, the DVDs are readily available at a Chinatown near you, or at reputable e-tailers like HKFlix and YesAsia.