Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Chi bi - Red Cliff: John Woo's greatest achievement

I always thought that one of the great signs of the apocalypse would be when my 5 favourite directors would craft a historically set epic. Cameron made Titanic, Bay made Pearl Harbor, Verhoven made Black Book and now Woo has directed this Red Cliff leaving only Tony Scott to stave off the end of the world single handedly.

I was honestly not expecting anything like this; yes I knew this was going to be epic, clocking in at the best part of 2.5 hours [cut down from the original 2-part 4.5 hour arse-numbing Chinese version], but I thought maybe along the lines of The Curse Of The Golden Flower or Hero and I also thought it was going to be Woo's attempt at an "Oscar type" movie. However I think I may have prejudged it a bit too quickly. This movie wouldn't win Ocsars because it's just too good, not a heaps of shit like they've been giving the golden statue to for the past 10 years. No, this is a brutal war movie, with lo-and-behold- a plot! Yes! A well crafted and properly written and thought out plot, not just filler to tie a host of spectacularly choreographed gun-ballet slow-mo dove-infested action sequences together! I was as shocked to discover this as you are reading it. But does this departure from the Woo-norm detract from the experience you expect from a Woo-movie? No. In fact I'd go as far as saying that it enhances it.

The movie is set set in 208 A.D., in the final days of the Han Dynasty. Emperor Han's Prime Minster- Cao Cao, convinced him that the only way to unite all of China was to declare war on the kingdoms of Xu in the West and East Wu in the south. A military campaign of unprecedented scale began, commanded by Cao Cao, himself. Left with no other hope for survival, Liu Bei of Xu and Zhou Yu, Viceroy of East Wu formed an alliance to defeat the plans of Cao Cao to both gain dominion over them and usurp the throne of Emperor Han. Red Cliff is where the final battle was fought changing the course of Chinese history forever.

I'll be putting a copy of Red Cliff on my shelf with the likes of Glory, Gladiator, The Last Samurai and Brotherhood as the finest examples of modern epics in movie history. Despite this being a "respectable" movie, however- it still retains the John Woo staple elements: A generous use of slow-motion, not the excessive bullet-time but just enough to show us the diverse expert fighting styles and weapons of the different generals fighting in the war. [Note: soldiers don't get any slow-mo unless being slaughtered or dismembered by the generals, and there are a lot of generals hanging about Red Cliff :)]. At the very end of the movie there is a Mexican Stand-Off, but instead of pistols and assault rifles [as this is in 208AD] we get swords and bows and arrows and the tension is even greater than normal. Finally we have a dove. An impossibly white sometimes CGI dove.

While the cast did a more than adequate job, but in order to have achieved the faultless rating, the original casting for the 3 main characters would've had to have been in place. The notable absence of Chow Yun-Fat was felt; he was to appear as Zhou Yu [and so Tony Leung would have played the strategist Zhuge Liang instead], but Chow's contract had 73 clauses that the movie's insurance company could not reconcile. The excellent Ken Wanatabe was to portray Cao Cao, but due to protestations of a Japanese actor being hired to play a prominent Chinese historical figure, Zhang Fengyi was cast instead.

I think personally, my favourite John Woo movie will always be Hard Boiled, but there isn't a shadow of a doubt that Red Cliff is easily his greatest achievement and is possibly enough to forgive him for some of his dodgy US movie choices. As an old friend of mine, Lo Wang once said: "Be proud, Mr. Woo!" and for this, more than anything else he has crafted - he can.

Final Verdict: If you've been unhappy with the more recent modern epics like Kingdom Of Heaven, Flags Of Our Fathers and Alexander; you don't mind reading 2.5 hours of subtitles and you don't squirm at the sight of flowing blood; then this is for you. One stuntman died and others were seriously injured to make this what it is and it's well worth the human life lost.

Colonel Creedon Rating *****

1 comment:

Bruce Russell said...

I hear his follow-up historical epic will be "Sweet, Yet Spicy: The General Tso Story."