Friday, August 13, 2010

Homemade summer movie marathon: Red Cliff (extended cut)

Red Cliff (2008, John Woo)

Following a rather hit or miss stint as a director in the United States during the 90s and early 00s, world renowned Hong Kong director John Woo felt the time had come to make his way back home to China. Earlier this summer we took a quaint look at one of his earliest films, The Killer (reviewed here). It was a beautifully wrapped little box filled of sugary goodness for action movie fans, including the right dose of melodrama for good measure. As sophisticated and intense as those action scenes were, as fun as the comic book level character interactions were, as strong an impact as the film score had, all those are practically peanuts in comparison to the film he directed and co-wrote upon his return on native soil. The fruit of his efforts, following years of research and the largest budget awarded to any Asian (let alone Chinese) film ever, was Red Cliff.

Set in 208 A.D. during the dying years of the Han Dynasty, Woo’s film recounts the story of a war thirsty prime minister named Cao Cao (Fengyi Zhang) who duped the Emperor into allowing the sending in a mammoth-sized army force into the southlands in order to repel a supposed rebellion two warlords were engaged in, Liu Bei and Sun Quan. Not typically allies, both warlords agreed to combine their respective forces and tactical brilliance in the hopes of repelling the awe inspiring armada sent in by Cao Cao.

That is a general plot summary, but the film itself, which runs a whopping 288 minutes (that is not a typo), awards much time to some of the more intricate aspects of war planning, the negotiations that form alliances, and the friendships that even bond some of the characters who otherwise would have remained distant rivals. The film opens with Prime Minister Cao Cao pleading with the Han Dynasty Emperor to suppress the rebellion building in the south, a mostly fabricated claim, and then switches perspectives to that of high advisors in the Liu Bei (Yong You) camp, most notably his lead military strategist, Gan Xing (Shidô Nakamura), who suggests that they and the Sun Quan (Chen Chang) camp form a temporary alliance to augment their chances of withstanding the inevitable onslaught from Cao Cao. Negotiations follow, which eventually bring Gan Xing and Sun Quan’s viceroy, Zhu Yu (Tony Leung Chiu Wai) together in an epic partnership that their people will have not soon forgotten.

Through this summer marathon we’ve watched plenty of films that were very large in scope, impressing the eyes and the mind with their intense visual splendours and there often intelligent and noteworthy thematic resonance. With the marathon nearing its completion, it seems fitting that we tackle what will more than likely end up being the biggest movie of the bunch. Red Cliff easily won over audiences back in director’s John Woo’s native land and managed to make North Americans take notice when it was released sparingly across Canada and the U.S. late last year. I for one saw the international cut of the film, which was considerably trimmed to approximately 2 ½ hours. Going in I already knew that there existed an longer, more epic version of the movie, but I was still considerably entertained, moved by the production values which were as authentic as possible for the time period, the engaging characters and the hard core battle sequences. There was little doubt in my mind that I would seek out the original version offering the director’s true vision of these historical events. When the film was released on Blu-ray in both versions, the choice seemed obvious enough. Last Sunday afternoon I sat down in my living room and spent 4 ¾ hours glued to my television as the gargantuan battle of Red Cliff took place in front of my eyes.

Allow me to make at least one thing clear before I venture into a spasm of fan-boy hyperbole: Red Cliff is something of a crowd pleaser. Despite its potentially testing running length and some moments in which the violence gets fairly bloody, John Woo’s vision of how things went down takes some creative liberties with the facts and adds some little character interactions that fit right in place with many of the action adventures film we see at the multiplex every weekend. Some of these additions and changes are bit too much on the nose while others hint that perhaps Woo was trying to be too cute and feared that a straight up historical action movie might hinder his chances of gaining a widespread audience. One scene (which was not in the international cut) has the military strategist Gan Xing assist a female horse belonging to Zhu Yu and his loving wife as their prized pet gives birth. It’s a very, very bizarre scene which, certainly in the context of the story, has strictly no business being there. There is also a female spy (Wei Zhao, who is pretty cute I must admit) from the Sun Quan clan who is sent into Cao Cao’s camp with the mandate of retrieving information on the Prime Minister’s plan of attack. Throughout this section of the story she forms a friendship with a dopey and excessively innocent soldier who fights for the enemy. For her to form a bond with someone on the opposing side is nothing terrible had it been handled with a bit more tact. The way it comes across is patently goofy and ends in a predictably tragic manner, thus making the ‘tragic’ aspect void.

Notwithstanding the few elements which don’t quite fit into place, John Woo’s efforts are wondrous to behold. I tell no lie when I write that the 4 hours and 45 minutes it took me to sit through Red Cliff ticked away rapidly. Imagine that, a 288-minute long film felt briefer than some films which claim to only be a scant 90. It is somewhat difficult to pinpoint how exactly a story which takes up over 4 hours of one’s time can possibly move along at a brisk pace. Maybe it was something in the cookies I was eating (strawberry and white chocolate), maybe it the sad weather which forced my mind to concentrate on nothing else except what unfolded before my eyes, or maybe it was because John Woo had constructed a darn good movie. If a movie is going to have 4 or 5 scenes of military men talking about what strategies will enhance their chances for victory, whether or not the tortoise formation is too outdated for it to effectively push back Cao Cao’s land attacks, or which way the wind will be blowing in 2 days time, it had best deliver those scenes in compelling fashion. The truth of the matter is that every one of those moments is both interesting and entertaining. There interesting because they offer some intriguing insight into how exactly battles on land and at sea were planned under such rushed circumstances and in a time period vastly different from the one we live in now, which by default meant that large scale combat was approached from considerably different perspective with different variables taken into consideration. Those same scenes are equally entertaining in part due to Woo’s excellent camera work, his editing, and the performance of the actors like the inimitable Tony Leung and an actor I’ve had on my radar since seeing him in Clint Eastwood’s Letter from Iwo Jima, Shidô Nakamura. Most of the cast has great charisma (despite the fact that most of these people are in fact warlords. Small detail, but again, it goes back to the fact that the film is a bit of a crowd pleasure), but many of my favourite scenes involved Tony Leung and Shidô Nakamura specifically. At times there was respectful banter between the two which consistently remained within the limits of what seemed natural that lent their friendship, if it can be called such, a credibility. While the movie does spend some time with Zhu Yu and his wife, in my mind the most important relationship was that between the Viceroy and Lie Bei’s top military strategist. They both know that in the future, if the variables change, both could easily face off as enemies. They accept their fates but appreciate the temporary partnership that has formed between the two. Great stuff.

This being a John Woo film, some time should be reserved for discussing the action, which is stellar through and through. The director and his crew really went the extra mile in order to bring the epic scope of the Battle of Red Cliffs to life on screen. There are 4 major battles that occur throughout the course of the film and each one feels fully unique. There is a bloody skirmish in a small town under Liu Bei’s umbrella of protection, a minutely planned ambush (tortoise formation!) along the dusty plains next to the Red Cliffs, a night time river battle involving kamikaze ships on fire, and finally the last assault on Cao Cao’s forces, an attack which seems eerily similar to the Normandy invasion by the Allied Forces during D-Day in WWII. Woo chooses to play a unique juggling act between gritty realism and the fantastic during these battles. Fear not, there is nothing supernatural about what transpires, only that many of the war heroes we see engage the enemy display some surprising physical prowess, with many of the kills being expertly choreographed. It wasn’t enough to take me out of the moment, not at all in fact, but I wonder if it might turn some people off, especially those who might be seeking a slightly more realistic vision of how sword fights probably went down back then. I thought they were a blast to behold and superbly executed, but as I’ve already written, most of the kills are far too perfect and ‘cool’ for them to be only taken seriously. John Woo, while showing that war can be a violent and bloody affair, is also clearly having some fun and relishing opportunity to make these Chinese war legends into action movie characters.

Finding a balance between historical accuracy and crowd pleasing entertainment, Red Cliff is not without its faults, but I still fell madly in love with it. The set design, the costumes, the score (Which is immediately catchy. I’m still humming the theme!), the visual effects, the solid cast, the engaging character interactions, the vast scope of the picture, all these combine to make one of the best action movies I have ever seen. There are undeniably some John Woo sensibilities sprinkled here and there, not all of which work, but what does in fact work is so darn good that I have to award the film with some high praise.

Welcome home John Woo. This is how you kick some ass.

Yes, there is a dove scene in this movie. Just in case you were wondering.