16 May 2009

RED CLIFF: PART I AND II (Dir. John Woo, 2008, China) - 'Truth and illusion are often disguised as each other...'

Tony Leung as the General and Leader, Zhou Yu, of the Rebel Army

An ambitious undertaking from one of the key film makers of the Hong Kong new wave in the 1980s, John Woo’s Asian homecoming is the most expensive film made in Asia to date. An epic action adventure saga, ‘Red Cliff’ suggests that Woo should never have disembarked to Hollywood in the first place. His career in Hollywood has been an uneven one, and though he undoubtedly replicated many of his signature shots like slow motion gun play and white doves sweeping into frame, films like ‘Broken Arrow’ and ‘Windtalkers’ lacked the manic energy, wit and sheer breathlessness of his influential Hong Kong action films. When Woo and his long time producer Terence Chang announced the ‘Red Cliff’ project with a budget estimated at $80 million dollars, industry pundits were quick to label it as somewhat of a financial gamble and commercial risk. Plagued by an unfortunate series of production problems including the much publicised exit of Chow Yun Fat (eventually replaced by Takeshi Kaneshiro who was subsequently pushed into a secondary role after Tony Leung stepped back into the frame after Woo’s pleading), and the death of a stuntman during filming, ‘Red Cliff’ quickly evolved into one of the most eagerly awaited ‘event’ films to have been released in Asia.

Takeshi Kaneshiro as the spiritual leader of the alliance formed between the remaining rebel armies

The film’s record breaking opening weekend and promising box office run not only overturned Titanic’s long standing precedent, but reiterated how the Asian film industry is capable of financing tentpole productions that have the technical proficiency and star power to compete with the major Hollywood studios. The deeply indigenous nature of the production is underlined in the film’s historical scope, reconstructing ‘The Battle of Red Cliffs’, a key event from China’s past with a populist narrative that appeals to the nationalist sentiments of a predominately Chinese audience. The film was released in two parts in the Asian territories, totalling over four hours in length but UK audiences will only be able to watch the film in a shortened version. I have managed to watch the film in its full length version and part of me is pretty sceptical of the way in which UK distributors have chosen to offer only a compromise of an epic that should really seen in the original context including what is an all important Bollywood style intermission.

Chiling Lin as Xiao Qiao; the wife of Zhou Yu

It is interesting to compare the visual extravagance of Woo's immaculately constructed canvas to that of Zhang Yimou's 'Curse of the Golden Flower'. Both seem to share a fascination with the details of what is a painstaking recreation of Chinese history, intricately bringing to life the opulence of such an era through the mesmerising production design, incredible costumes and vivid uses of colour. Unlike Yimou's elegant camerawork and understated reliance on simple set ups, Woo's control over the storytelling is purely motivated to achieve a visceral affect and invoking a strong overwrought emotional response. The battle sequences are on par if not better than the ones which have supposedly set a benchmark in terms of technical expertise (namely 'Gladiator', 'Spartacus' and '300') and choreographed with just the right level of bravado. Woo also draws a great deal from ancient history and in particular Homer's Iliad, an epic poem that recounts the Trojan war.

Fengyi Zhang is sublimely menacing as the warlord, Cao Cao who crowns himself Chancellor of the Imperial Army

Featuring an all star cast of Asian cinema’s finest including the magnanimous Tony Leung, ‘Red Cliff’ is a film that is best viewed in the context of Woo’s hyperbolic cinematic approach, pushing the action sequences to the point of self parody and exaggerating the emotional content of the narrative so that is becomes an expensive soap opera. I found ‘Red Cliff’ to be an exhilarating and at times moving experience but it is one that takes place in the realms of absolute fantasy and indulges in those John Woo stylistic flourishes with a gratifying degree of guilty cinematic pleasure. This may just be the best thing John Woo has directed in many a years; let's just hope he never goes back to making those underwhelming films in Hollywood again.

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