Cinema Mishmash

A personal and random look at movies, past and present

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Red Cliff

October 9th, 2009 · No Comments

redcliff1Aside from being a kind and gracious soul (as displayed again at his appearance tonight at the film’s North American debut at the Chicago International Film Festival), John Woo is a talented filmmaker. He is well known for the visual flourish he brings to action sequences, which is tirelessly put to use is Red Cliff, his adaptation of the enormous Chinese historical novel, Romance of the Three Kingdoms. But underneath the clashing swords, incredible landscapes, giant sets, and thousands of extra, Woo has put his talent and resources toward the most important asset in any film, large or small: the individual characters.

The version of the film that I saw is the condensed US theatrical version of the film, edited down to about half the length of the nearly five-hour, two-part original version that screened in China. The slimmer cut was apparently intended to make the story – well known to Asian audiences – more accessible to western viewers. As a result of the condensation, however, the first ten minutes of Red Cliff are tough work. For a moment I thought Woo had hired the narrator of the film festival trailer, Ken Nordine, to supply the voiceover in the opening scenes. The narration, along with captions identifying the main characters, is part of the fairly rapid introduction of the somewhat complicated historical and political moment that begins the film. Luckily, we more or less settle into the storyline about the same time the film finds its feet, and we’re spared the narrated play-by-play for the rest of the movie.

redcliff2Among a large cast of characters, there are three central roles, two heroes and one villain. The main hero is  Zhou Yu, a role originally intended for Chow Yun Fat, but excellently (and I would say better) portrayed by Tony Leung. At the post-screening Q&A, Woo said that Leung (whose notable credits include several roles for Wong Kar Wai, Hero, and Ang Lee’s recent Lust, Caution) had matured and gained considerable charisma since they had first worked together. Indeed, he conveys the many sides of Zhou Yu’s character with absolute authenticity, often with very few words. But as far as charisma goes, it is impossible not to be drawn to military strategist Zhuge Liang (Takeshi Kaneshiro), as both actor and character muster the type of innate magnetism that literally hold together a 2 hour 26 minute movie. The baddie, Prime Minister Cao Cao, is played by Fengyi Zhang.  But the care and attention of both screenwriter and actor isn’t limited to just these three. Not since theLord of the Rings trilogy have so many memorable characters played such specific roles in what is, in part, an action film.

Although the story is military in nature, and weaves Woo’s career theme of friendship within the context of redcliff3underdog narrative (the good guys were enormously outnumbered by the Imperial army and navy), there are fascinating secondary themes involving respect for the environment, culture, and the arts (especially music). You won’t find that in a Michael Bay or Roland Emmerich film, even though Red Cliff sees more than its fair share of explosions, flames, and blood. I only hope, with films like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Hero having blazed the trail, that his Mandarin language film gets the reception from American audiences that it deserves.

Tags: Action/Adventure · Director · Drama · Ensemble · Foreign Language · Review · Romance · War

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