By Leo Goldsmith
Dir. John Woo, China, Magnet Releasing
Financed by the state-owned China Film Group Corporation to the tune of $80 million, John Woo's Red Cliff is the latest “most expensive Chinese film ever made,” following quickly upon such prior contenders as Curse of the Golden Flower and Hero. Woo's film is of course a massive-scale martial arts epic like its spendy predecessors, both of which were directed by Zhang Yimou. And Woo's take on the Asian blockbuster is very much like Zhang's: the cast is packed with innumerable Chinese superstars (Tony Leung, Takeshi Kaneshiro, Zhao Wei, Chang Chen, etc.) who play heroes that do everything from catching spears in mid-air to ripping arrows out of their own bodies and stabbing others with them. And as in Zhang's films, the carnage is immeasurable: hundreds of thousands of people are sliced, jabbed, or burned alive over the course of the film's bloated running time, which has itself been chopped for U.S. distribution.
But what's different about this particular “most expensive Chinese film ever made” is that it's by a filmmaker from Hong Kong, not one from the mainland, and more importantly, one who fled Asia for Hollywood well in advance of the British government's 1997 handover of its colony over to the People's Republic. As a child, Woo and his Christian family escaped religious persecution to Hong Kong. For many, John Woo is still the Hong Kong action filmmaker, having cut his teeth under the martial-arts master Chang Cheh and earned his stripes making baroque crime thrillers for movie mogul Tsui Hark. And many of these films embody a kind of post-Tiananmen, pre-handover anxiety, a sense of looming deadlines for a decadent, free-wheeling world with no future.
Red Cliff, then, marks his first film in China after 16 years, when the director left Asia on the epic high note of Hard-Boiled and moved to the U.S. to make Hard Target with Jean-Claude Van Damme. With a couple of variously disappointing John Travolta and Nicolas Cage vehicles and a Mission Impossible sequel under his belt, Woo found few projects (or production models) to match his redoubtable skills, leaving this talented genre director somehow lost in translation. Curious projects, like the punchline-ready Windtalkers, came and went without notice. Amazingly, 2003’s Paycheck—a brainless exercise in Philip K. Dicking-around featuring Ben Affleck exclaiming, “I invented a machine that can predict the future!” and a hideously gangly Uma Thurman destroying any action cred she earned from Kill Bill—was the last feature film he completed.
But the China of 2009 is appreciably different from the China of Tiananmen Square. Now Woo seems to find himself in the midst of a career-arc curiously similar to that of Zhang Yimou, who only a few years ago traded in his penchant for soft, interchangeable art-house pieces for hardcore fantasy-fu, ripe with the kind of eye-popping historical revisionism that allows Zhang Ziyi to fly and Gong Li to show a lot of cleavage. Before he was maître-en-scène of the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing, Zhang was considered one of the most important filmmakers of the precocious post-Cultural Revolution “Fifth Generation,” serving as Chen Kaige’s cinematographer on films like Yellow Earth and The Big Parade. This is a strange lineage for the director of Hero, with its chest-thumping nationalism and flatly glossed historical carnage, but Zhang quickly made up for the inconsistency with House of Flying Daggers' apolitical (or, if we're being generous, transpolitical) story of lovers caught between warring (and ideologically vague) factions. With Curse of the Golden Flower, he threw reality out of the window entirely, giving it a nearly unwatchable palette derived from the “Heaven” sequences in the Robin Williams fantasy What Dreams May Come. (Zhang's next film is, reportedly and for no apparent reason, an adaptation of the Coen brothers’ Blood Simple.)
Of course, in Woo's case, the change in style is not so different than the change in country, and so the first thing that strikes the viewer of Red Cliff is how much more down to earth it is than Zhang's multicolored flights of fancy. Even if Woo is not known for historical epics or straight-up kung-fu, his prowess as an action director makes this a natural fit. Sourcing its story from a well-known tale of military strategy and realpolitik from the late Han Dynasty, Woo's film (or the U.S. cut of it at least) opens with a helpful voiceover to walk us through the backstory. It’s 208 AD, and the unscrupulous Northern warlord Cao Cao has successfully intimidated the Emperor into siccing his army of 800,000 men against the peaceful Southlands. This aggression forces the leaders of the Southern and Eastern Kingdoms, the honorable Liu Bei and the young, untested Sun Quan, to join forces, creating an alliance that comes to the head at Red Cliff, where local badass viceroy Zhou Yu has a nice camp with a small, but taut crew of soldiers.
Something of a Chinese Iliad, the Red Cliff tale has enough honor and deceit, camaraderie and cavaliering for a cast of thousands. And Woo stacks the deck with as many A-list Asian megastars as he can find: Tony Leung, unfortunately looking a little saggier in the gills, takes the role as Zhou Yu (whose account of the battle is the event's prime historical text—“written by the victors,” as it were); Chang Chen, Tony's restaurant buddy and unrequited love in Happy Together, is Sun Quan; Takeshi Kaneshiro is famed master strategist Zhuge Liang (a.k.a. Kongming); and Johnnie To regular You Yong plays Liu Bei. There are at least a dozen other memorable parts, as well (including Shaolin Soccer’s Zhao Wei, who brings the girl power)—a Star Wars–style playset in the making—but in spite of a handful of set pieces, none of the action sequences match the director’s most memorable work. Woo's Hong Kong films are masterful (and quite literal) examples of the body deconstructing architecture, but instead of the usual balustrades to slide on or balconies to careen over, Red Cliff offers a much larger landscape to contend with. With a massive canvas and $80 million to spare, the film falls back on CGI—adeptly made stuff by an India-based company, but not the visceral kinesis one would hope for in a Woo film. With its frequent zooms and antic acting, Woo’s is a more distinctly HK style of kung fu than Zhang's, but the only thing that really makes it a John Woo film is, you guessed it, the dove. And it’s the most ridiculously self-conscious use of a dove in the history of cinema (if not of doves), a flapping, computer-generated in-joke that holds the screen for some five minutes as it soars over hordes of Northern galleons.
Nonetheless, while it’s not the “return to form” the auteuristic PR narrative would have us believe, Red Cliff has its share of Peter Jacksonian thrills and conveys complex maneuvers, stratagems, and double- and triple-crosses clearly and efficiently. Cao Cao wields his army in a variety of subtle and not-so-subtle ways, ranging from brute force to psychological warfare; and under-manned allied forces under Zhou Yu rejoin with their own cunning, employing head-scratching feats of choreography as the “tortoise tactic” and using their impressive meteorological skills to their advantage. There are some vaguely sketched romantic side stories and some warm, mutual appreciation amongst the good guys, but really the film functions to propel us to the final battle, in which about a million people are annihilated on a massive, digitally enhanced scale. This is, after all, a blockbuster, so don’t expect subtlety. Predictably, it turns out that the whole affair started because of a woman, Zhou Yu's Helen of Troy-esque wife, whose unparalleled beauty has incited Cao Cao to murderous hubris on a massive trans-kingdom scale.
To be sure, this shopworn metonymy—substituting the woman's body for the Motherland—is as overdetermined as they come, especially in Chinese cinema. But coupled with some subtler notions, this theme almost makes Red Cliff a fascinating bit of subversion. The geographic coding alone—an aggressive Northern superpower beating up on peaceful Southern factions housed in a pleasant cove across the bay—plainly suggests a standoff between the haughty, Beijing-based PRC and its more reluctant territories. And the cast would seem to confirm this by pitching an overwhelmingly Taiwanese and Hong Konger set of good guys against a predominantly Mainland set of baddies (including the deliciously villainous Zhang Fengyi as Cao Cao). This is not to say that Woo is biting the hand that feeds him $80 million. On the contrary, his film did right by the China Film Group Corporation, beating out Titanic to become the highest grossing film in Chinese box office history. If anything, it shows that John Woo is highly aware of his place as prodigal auteur, returning to a burgeoning country that seems willing to recognize both his box-office draw and his human rights. But Red Cliff is a film as much about reconciliation—about creating alliances and maintaining balance—as it is about making war, disease, carnage, and sorrow seem like a big, dumb, beautiful spectacle.