John Woo’s massive historical epic comes to America – in condensed form – this November.
The most expensive film in Asian production history but also the highest-grossing among Chinese cinema to date, director John Woo’s Red Cliff relates the momentous Battle of Red Cliffs that marked the end of China’s Han Dynasty and the beginning of its Three Kingdoms period in the Third Century CE. The film also presents something of a comeback for Woo himself, marking his first Chinese film since 1992 and his first full-length feature since the 2003 flop Paycheck.
Though the Asian release saw the four hour-plus epic cut into two parts, American audiences will see an abbrieviated 148-minute version that condenses the complicated and far-reaching story into a single narrative while introducing new footage that helps explain and clarify the depicted events. The film follows Han Chancellor Cao Cao (Zhang Fengyi) as he leads the Imperial Army on an expedition to crush Southern warlords Sun Quan (Chang Chen) and Liu Bei (You Yung). Desperate for new territory with which to bolster their crumbling empire, the Han army is swift and merciless, overrunning provinces and killing civilians as well as combatants.
Liu Bei and his compatriots lead the defense of the civilians and their own lands, eventually allying with Sun Quan in a last-ditch effort at defense even while Cao Cao’s forces approach the city of Red Cliff, situated along the strategically crucial south bank of the Yangtze River. Quan’s sister, Sun Shangxiang (Zhao Wei), infiltrates Cao Cao’s camp to gather intelligence while leaders on both sides beg, borrow, and steal the supplies and intelligence needed to gain an upper hand. Much of the film’s Asian release detailed the intrigue and human drama leading up to the cataclysmic main engagement, with subterfuge and deceit blooming all around. By the end of the battle the victorious Sun and Liu retain their holdings south of the Yangtze, in time establishing the kingdoms that would come to be known as Shu Han and Eastern Wu.
Woo also co-wrote the screenplay, basing the story not on the landmark historical novel Romance of the Three Kingdoms (celebrated as one of the finest novels in all of Chinese literature) but on the more neutrally-toned historical record Chronicle of the Three Kingdoms, which reportedly presents a more even-handed treatment of characters on both sides of the fighting. As perhaps a sign of the film’s importance as a Chinese cultural event, the nation’s government lent the production more than 100,000 soldiers from the People’s Liberation Army to serve as extras for the combined naval and land battle.
For all that scale the story is also one of characters, many of whom are legends in their own right and revered throughout 17 centuries of Chinese history. Though the cast is stocked to overflowing with Chinese actors both veteran and up-and-coming, the film’s earlier announced cast would have offered a meeting of stars seldom seen: screen legend Chow Yun-Fat (The Killer) was slated to star as Zhou Yu, Quan’s military commander, but withdrew over script and contract disputes. Japanese actor Ken Watanabe (Batman Begins) was cast as Cao Cao but was released after the production drew complaints for casting a non-Chinese actor in such an important role. Finally, Tony Leung Chiu-Wai (Internal Affairs) was originally cast as strategist Zhuge Liang (played now by Takeshi Kaneshiro) but replaced Chow instead.
Woo himself became a legend in the early 90s, thanks to staggeringly innovative and artistic work on action films such as Hard Boiled (1992) and especially 1989′s The Killer. His American career was less impressive, starting slowly with the Jean Claude Van Damme vehicle Hard Target (1993) and reaching through the John Travolta-led films Broken Arrow (1996) and Face-Off (1997), both somewhat formulaic efforts that often cribbed plot devices or imagery from Woo’s earlier, Asian-produced work. His films in the current decade have been even less noteworthy, including the Nicolas Cage-starring Windtalkers (2001) and the aforementioned Paycheck.
Still, there’s something about such a sweeping and important work that feels a natural fit for Woo, and if the reduced version does well in theatres hopefully a restored DVD edition will find its way to American shelves.
Red Cliff opens in limited release November 20.
- Michael Kabel