Most audiences know John Woo from films like Face Off and Mission Impossible II. However, his career has been far more interesting and his American films are a pale mimic of some of the work he directed when based in Asia. Thankfully, Woo has come home and in doing so he has tackled an ambitious film based on the historic Battle of Red Cliffs.
The Battle of Red Cliffs is a well known part of Chinese history. Set in AD208, it was a time when the Emperor was fairly inexperienced, and relied heavily on his advisors to make national decisions. Unfortunately, this allowed the ambitions of Prime Minister Cao Cao to run unchecked. Using his influence he led the imperial army across the country wiping out Warlords and bringing them under submission. However, the southlands had been the real target of his ambitions.
According to the film, which apparently is based on historic records, his true target was not power but a woman – the wife of Grand Viceroy Zhou Yu, leader of the armies of warlord Sun Quan. Between the two, is the lands of Warlord Liu Bei who is repeatedly defeated but portrayed as a noble leader, putting the safety of his people over the arrogance of ensuring victories. When it becomes clear the Cao Cao is going to head south and stamp out both Warlords, they join forces in a battle of seemingly impossible odds.
John Woo has proven that when it comes to action, he is a master. His camera work and staging is unbelievably beautiful and poetic. However, he has always struggled with narrative and his scripts have been somewhat forced and more a precursor to action. In films like The Killer and Bullet in the Head, the scripts serve their purpose well but they can’t be considered particularly well written. In Red Cliff, he has definitely improved but still the pace tends to move too slowly and there is so much complex politics and behind the scenes machinations occurring that trying to keep track of it all is difficult. The problem is, Woo is a poet at heart. He wants to tell a story with emotion and beauty but in doing so he also tends to make it a little confusing and, quite frankly, boring. Perhaps it is the language barrier or something “lost in translation” but much of the time you find yourself thinking “ok, get on with it”.
It could also have something to do with the fact that this film was originally much longer, closer to 280 minutes. Our version is a heavily edited 148 minutes and many sub plots have been removed to make it more palatable for western audiences. The original film was released in two parts in Asia. Quite frankly, I would have liked to see the longer version. I don’t appreciate a film studio dictating what “Western” audiences can handle. It feels like they are hoping it will be the next Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and so have tried to trim it so that it becomes more main stream. Whether the release we received suffers or benefits from the edit, it is hard to judge without seeing both versions but it could be an explanation of why moments seems odd and rushed while others are unnecessarily drawn out.
When this film is good, it is quite breathtaking. While there are times when you get lost in the plot, the visuals are exquisite nonetheless and the performances by the actors are heart warming and, in some cases, quite remarkable. With a story as complex and with so many characters, it is hard to give everyone enough time to develop equally. The main focus of the film is two military strategists Zhou Yu and Zhuge Liang (Lui Bei’s advisor). The two characters are probably fleshed out the most and their friendship and mutual respect ties heavily into the films conclusion. There is also a fair amount of humour and friendly banter and I particularly liked how Woo portrayed the “Villian” of the piece, Cao Cao. He was given motivations which are really quite human and blind in a lot of ways. He isn’t just a typical power hungry dictator type but, while arrogant, believes that he is killing and conquering for the greater good and for love.
While I didn’t love this film as much as I wanted to, I still enjoyed it to an extent. It was great to see Woo back at home and doing what he does best. His American films got worse and worse and the excitement I used to feel for seeing a Woo film was all but gone. Hopefully, he will stay in Asia and once again grow as a filmmaker.
This isn’t a film for your typical Friday night audiences. The audience I saw with it was vocal out of boredom and laughed at moments that weren’t meant to be funny. For large sections of the film I was engrossed in it but, at the same time, there were moments where it was tiring to watch. Hopefully we will get the full release when it hits the home video market but until then, we have to be content with what we are given.
It has incredible cinematography and direction, the action is top notch and the story is compelling. The only thing that lets it down is the dialogue which is a little ham fisted at times and the pacing. Overall though, it is worth seeing to make up your own mind but unless you are a die hard Woo fan, you may not enjoy it as much as something like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon or House of Flying Daggers.