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Red Cliffs (Chi Bi Xia)

dir: John Woo
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I’m a bit confused. There’s a film called Red Cliffs that’s playing in the cinemas at the moment, which is meant to be an amalgam of two movies John Woo finished last year. But I don’t know if what I watched is what cinemagoers got to see, since I saw something around five hours long.

Now, there are films that are epic in length, others epic in scope, and still others are epic in terms of the boredom they inspire in audiences. ‘Epic’, in and of itself, isn’t necessarily synonymous with ‘good’. Some things are great the bigger they are, and I’ll leave it up to your personal preferences to imagine which ones, but tumours, debts, jail sentences and divorce settlements don’t necessarily improve with increased length, width or girth.

Yet it was viewed at my leisure, at least I can say that. What I saw is what Asian audiences saw staggered over two releases last year when this/these films made more money than Titanic. Only in Asia though. The rest of the world could care less, and rightly so.

John Woo hasn’t made a decent flick in twenty years, so just contemplate for a moment that it has taken him twenty fucking years to make a decent film again despite so many opportunities. To call it a return to form is an understatement.

Sure, he’s been working, there’s no doubt about that. You’ve got to keep busy. But mostly it’s just been painful hackwork whose only purpose seems to be the attempt to obscure the fact that he only ever had one decent film in him. Everything else has been empty water-treading ever since and he knows it.

Thing is, though, as action films go, Hard Boiled is pretty much the Mt Everest of achievements, so it’s no wonder that he hasn’t come close since then.

Adapting Red Cliffs into a feature was probably a safe bet, since it’s a classic part of the Chinese history the Chinese Communists still acknowledge as having happened. It tells the tale of an epic battle between rival warlords thousands of years ago where the odds were tremendously against the eventual victors and the imperial ambitions of an usurper were thwarted by noble and attractive opponents. Such a tale is malleable in the right hands, and since it’s a classic war tale (it’s kind of like the Chinese equivalent of the Battle of Thermopylae - 300 without the homoeroticism -Waterloo, Agincourt, Battle of Hastings and Helm’s Deep all rolled up into one), presumably has an in-built audience for Chinese people who want to watch lots of CGI soldiers live and die in spurts of CGI blood on the battlefield.

The battle is also, hooking in to its potential deeper significance / familiarity for the Chinese audience, in one of the novels considered to be one of the four pillars of Chinese literature, being the Romance of the Three Kingdoms. All I mean is that it’s probably a book millions of Chinese schoolkids are forced to chant passages from at gunpoint on a daily basis.

The questions really come down to how well Woo holds the whole long story together, whether the characters are likable or believable, whether they deliver decent performances, and whether the action and story deliver. To my surprise, it mostly hangs together and delivers an interesting and at times thrilling tale.

The epic begins with a strange young emperor falling half asleep as thousands of eunuchs, ministers, courtiers and other mere mortals kneel before him. He then gets all giggly when he sees a bird. Clearly there is something lacking in the last of the Han emperors to sit upon the throne way back in 208 A.D. His Chancellor, Cao Cao (Zhang Fengyi) has been waging wars with nearby states under the guise of subduing rebels and potential threats to the Han Dynasty. In reality he’s just trying to conquer everything so he can rule himself. With a massive army he sets off with the intention of conquering the southern regions controlled by Liu Bei (Yong You) and Sun Quan (Chen Chang), which would leave him in control of virtually everything that mattered to a young Han tyrant.

But the film would have been five minutes long had that plan actually come to fruition early on. Even though Liu Bei is pretty much useless at anything apart from making shoes, he has a sterling young man acting as his advisor, being Zhuge Liang (Takeshi Kaneshiro) who seems to know the solution and answer to everything. Yes, those kinds of people are eminently hateable, but he does a decent job with this strange cross between a Tao mystic and an effeminate military strategist willing to put his own head on the line in order to keep a promise.

Zhuge Liang’s intention is to convince Sun Quan to join his forces with Liu Bei in their fight against Cao Cao’s million-strong army. This takes up about three hours alone of screen time, as the young and insecure Sun Quan struggles with his inability to make any decisions because he doubts he has the character required to be a true leader.

It takes a criminal age for Sun Quan to finally muster up the courage to even think about making a decision, all of which is subtly paralleled with his weak attempts to hunt a tiger. See, the tiger is crafty, just like Cao Cao, and attacks where least expected, and is still totally dangerous even when surrounded by a lordling warlord and at least a thousand of his closest retainers and bodyguards. Still, at the crucial moment when Sun Quan must act, will he finally be able to pull the trigger? I mean, release the bow string? I mean, grow a pair?

So much weighs upon whether he makes a decision or not that it feels like the solution is dragged out endlessly. In fact, instead of being two films it could have been three, with a middle one of just Sun Quan sitting in his regal regalia in a hammock stroking his chin and looking indecisive. Occasionally people could come along and say “Made a decision yet?” “Nah.” “Oh, well, okay, I’ll check back with you in a few minutes.” He could then keep thinking about his elder and now dead brother who was way better than he was, and the father who thought he’d never amount to anything, and then keep putting off the decision whilst checking his watch to see if he can stretch it out a bit longer.

Eventually Zhuge Liang convinces someone to convince someone to convince Sun Quan to get on board and join forces with Liu Bei, which means that, finally it’s Zhou Yu’s time to shine. Heroically and mightily played by Tony Leung Chiu Wai, he is a trusted advisor and general loyal to Sun Quan, and the real force behind the throne. He also completely lacks the weakness and indecisiveness of his lord. It helps that this role is played by Tony Leung Chiu Wai, because, you know, Tony Leung is awesome.

Sure, his eyebrows do most of the acting here, but he’s such a wonderful actor, and he’s already hit Woo paydirt before as one of the leads in Hard Boiled. Ironically enough he ended up taking Chow Yun Fat’s place when Chow fell out with Woo the day filming was supposed to start.

Zhou Yu is such a tremendous general, and so very very smart, that at pretty much every stage of the film he can predict what Cao Cao, with his reputation for being unpredictable, is about to do. Also, Zhou, like everyone around him, regardless of whether they’re a general or a rice farmer, is a tremendous fighter, though the film wisely stops short of having the heroes flying or fighting in the martial arts way famous and familiar because of countless Hong Kong flicks from the last forty years. This is a war film after all, not a martial arts flick.

And there’s plenty of war. Plenty of scenes of people being killed with arrows and spears, expiring in fountains of pinkish-maroon CGI blood whenever hundreds of CGI weapons enter their flesh. Thousands and thousands of CGI extras running around screaming, getting into perfect formation and vanquishing the enemy with tactics so brilliant and techniques so effective that you know nothing of the sort ever happened.

But it all looks okay, there’s no doubting that. The primary story is really, ignoring the history for a moment, about the bonds of loyalty between men. Men men men men. There are exactly two female characters, but they can’t hold a candle to the burning love between the men in this flick. The men have more kindly, respectful, admiring glances for each other that they do for anything or anyone else.

Even the guy you’d think is the villain, Cao Cao, is portrayed not as a warmongering egomaniac, but as a cultured, intelligent man, who is ambitious yet not blind to the perils of pride. At one point he ridicules the poor penmanship of a general’s letter of surrender, and he focuses obsessively on the tea ritual, though it’s used for a different element and subplot, being his alleged lust for Zhou’s wife.

It surprises me how well everything hangs together. It’s a sprawling story with plenty of characters and all sorts of crazy things going on, but the way it’s all put together gives most of the characters and the film’s themes time to shine. Sure, sometimes you might feel like screaming “Just get to the goddamn battle, already!” but then something pretty amazing comes along every fifteen minutes or so. Even the humour, never a strong Woo element in any of his movies, works here, especially as part of the friendship between Sun Quan’s sister and a soldier in Cao Cao’s army. Dare I say it was even touching, goddamn it.

For my money the primary relationship in the film is the one between Zhuge Liang and Zhou Yu, and these classy men who clearly respect each other are always mindful of the fact that despite the outcome of the climactic battle, they are more than likely going to be opponents on the battlefield in years to come. This sets up an oddly unique one-upmanship competition whereby they try to prove to the other as to who is most committed to the fight against Cao Cao. It’s a competition where, whether it would or could have happened historically or not, both their literal heads are on the line.

I think the fact that this project had so much time, money and people devoted allowed for an impressive outcome. Sure, money and license don’t always guarantee a successful outcome, because quite often it results in flicks like the recent King Kong, Oliver Stone’s Alexander and any of the flicks Michael Bay has ever made. Money or creative freedom never were issues in those circumstances, and look at the abominations they spawned.

Red Cliffs is the epic it sets out to be, but, just to sound all contradictory, it succeeds because of its attention to the small scale stuff. The battle scenes and the overall outcome, and the look of it all would feel empty and pointless had not enough time been spent fleshing out these admittedly mythic characters. I’m not going to pretend that these characters are ever more than two dimensional, but they’re real enough to embody the story and make me care, however briefly, about a battle that happened nearly two thousand years ago.

I can’t comfortably recommend to anyone else that spending five hours watching this story would be an enjoyable and worthwhile expenditure of their time, but it worked for me.

7 times I thought totalitarian governments were incapable of producing watchable films out of 10.

“Why would someone who hates war read The Art of War?” – why indeed, especially since it hasn’t been transformed into a management textbook-lite yet to make salaried managers fantasise that their struggles with employee entitlements and redundancies are the equivalent of battlefield glory – Red Cliffs