Red Cliff: John Woo's Spiritually Epic Actionby
When we think of the films of John Woo a certain style and recurring motifs come to mind - slow motion, doves, incredible actions scenes, beautiful and serene music over hyper stylized violence - however, after watching his 4 ½ epic Red Cliff, something is revealed that may not necessarily obvious in his earlier films: Spirituality.
I first discovered the Mozart of Mayhem with his 1989 classic The Killer. It is a kinetic film with excellent characters, an interesting take on a familiar story and, perhaps most surprisingly, a lot of heart. I enjoyed one scene in particular, Inspector Li Ying (Danny lee) comes face to face with the titles hero – The Killer Ah Jong (Chow Yun Fat) at the home of Jennie (Sally Yeh), a woman who was blinded by a muzzle flash from Ah Jong's gun. He has taken pity on her and is now sponsoring her to get an eye operation. The two men face each other, their guns drawn in a Mexican stand-off, and introduce themselves to Jennie (who, oblivious to the fact that the two man are close to killing each other) as Tom and Jerry. It is a thread of humour in a very tense scene.
After that I saw hard Boiled – possibly my favourite of his films. It starts slowly, building up to one of the biggest and best action crescendos that have ever been filmed.
Inevitably that Hollywood came calling, although to only mixed results. Face/Off was great, Broken Arrow and Hard Target were ordinary, Mission Impossible 2 was middling at best and Paycheck was completely forgettable.
Even when the results were not that great, it has always been Woo's ability to film action that stood him apart from many of his peers (then and now). Slow motion shots of Chow Yun Fat jumping through the air, firing guns from both hands, furniture exploding at bullets rip them apart, are filmed as if violence is a form of visual poetry.
Moments like these look cool, they make fans of the action genre punch the air and feel the adrenaline flowing through their veins. For cinephiles it is great to see the work of a director who understands the language of film, can do so confidently and can also peer below the surface of the style and finding something deeper, a meaning possibly.
This significance of this style may not be obvious in isolation but does reveal itself over the career of a man who must be considered an auteur.
After returning to China from his stint in the US, Woo's first film was perhaps his most ambitious. At $80 million it was the most expensive Asian film ever made and it brought together some of the biggest names of China. It is truly a film of epic proportions.
Originally released in two parts – or one severely cut version in the UK (which I have never seen), Red Cliff is based on the real historical battles which led to the end of the Han Dynasty and formation of the Three Kingdoms period of ancient Chinese history. The Han Prime Minister, Cao Cao, manipulates the Emperor into declaring war on two warlords who, he claims, want to secede from the Han Dynasty. These two warlords - Liu Bei (Yong You) and Sun Quan (Chen Chang) join forces to resist the invasion into their lands, although they are still vastly outnumbered. The film follows the three leaders, their leadership and their families, to weave a fairly complicated tapestry which looks truly beautiful and lives up to its epic reputation.
It has all the elements that you would want from a John Woo film, despite the change in era, all the things that tells us who the director is, are intact. Even his obsession with doves is revealed once more, in a wonderfully audacious shot. The bird is thrown into the air from the Red Cliff revealing the limits of the Liu/Sun army and navy (approx. 200,000 men). it then flies across the vast river until it gets to the Han Navy which is extraordinarily huge (approx. 800,000 men). Thousands of ships are revealed followed by a fort which is home to men who can be seen riding, training, playing a form of football and then, finally, to Cao Cao himself who is surrounded by acolytes and generals.
The film details two major battles – the first in which a Tortoise shell is used as inspiration of possible formations – and the Second, the battle of Red Cliff itself, which is fought both on sea and land. Both battles are impressive, massive in scale yet Woo keeps in total control throughout and keeps us completely involved. It is a remarkable feat that may not have been achievable with a lesser director at the helm.
Throughout the film it is obvious that Woo's style is not just about a surface coolness but an expression of something much deeper. There is a spirituality there that is perhaps more obvious in his films than his others precisely because of the era it is set. This is not a new thing in Asian movies. In Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, House of the Flying Daggers, Hero and so many more, movement is poetry – it has meaning, like the intricate hand movements of a Chinese opera. Woo slows the image down time and time again, dissolving from one person to another revealing a connectivity that is not otherwise apparent. Think of that scene in Mission Impossible 2 as Tom Cruise and Thandie Newton, their cars spinning out of control on the mountain road. Woo focuses on them, dissolving between them – bringing them together, their futures entwined. He does the same here on several occasions, each time speaking to us purely in images.
The films are particularly Asian, and some of this subtly can and are easily lost to a western audience. You need to accept and look for meaning even though it is not immediately obvious to us. If you do, it will reveal itself and the experience is greater because of it.
Red Cliff, parts one and two, is a long film but a beautiful one. It is epic in length, scale, style and subject. The cast are fantastic, especially Takeshi Kaneshiro as the spiritual Zhuge Liang, a man who can read nature itself, completely in control at every moment. His ingenious way of accumulating 100,000 of the enemy is a certain highlight. Superstar Tony Chiu-Wai Leung, Wei Zhao (who was great in Mulan) and all the others perform wonderfully, making Red Cliff a must see for Asian film fans, Action fans and cinephiles everywhere.