Friday, 19 December 2008

What Would We Do Without John Woo?

We'd have to invent him, that's for sure. I've commented on the great man before, specifically his work on Stranglehold, the game that doubled as a sequel to his masterpiece Hard Boiled, though when I did that I had surprisingly little interest in his latest movie Red Cliff, even though the awesome Tony Leung Chui Wai is in it, and surely the return of Woo to Chinese cinema (and the reteaming with the co-star of Hard Boiled) should be a cause for celebration after his American films failed so badly.

I was paying so little attention to the production of Red Cliff that until a week ago I didn't even know it had been finished, let alone that it had been split into two movies, that the first had opened in Asia to enormous audiences, and that the West would have to wait until next year to see a single film that would lose about two hours of footage. Well, that's not going to happen on my watch. I got hold of a copy of Red Cliff: Part One this week, and I'm thrilled to say that it did not disappoint at all. In fact, I found myself, at times, applauding it. Saying it's his best film since Face/Off might sound like faint praise, as his post-Face/Off films were pretty rough, but trust me, this is an immediate classic. Accessible to all audiences, fast moving, thrilling, imaginative, beautifully shot and scored, and a feast for the eyes, it has vaulted high up my still-in-construction Best Of 2008 list.

(Yes, it's cheeky to add a film that isn't even getting a proper UK release into my list, but then release dates have made a mockery of our list-making, and caused much upset within our household (and we will probably not shut up about it for a while). Still, I'm not going to wait until next year to praise this film, especially as the second installment will be hitting cinemas in January, meaning I have something to look forward to. Here's the trailer for the first movie, just to give a taste of why I am so excited about this.)

Of course, I rave about it without having any knowledge whatsoever of the historical background, and so I pretty much just shouted, "OMG awesome!" every time one of the characters did something cool like catch a spear in mid-air. Even just a couple of minutes spent Wiki-ing leaves me utterly befuddled by the amount of controversy about rival interpretations of this period, i.e. the end of the Han Dynasty. Based as much on Chen Shou's original Records of Three Kingdoms as much as on the later novel Romance of Three Kingdoms by Luo Guangzhong, Red Cliff is a re-telling of a story very familiar to Chinese audiences but barely known in the West. These texts have been translated into English, but they're hard to come by. Just now I considered shelling out for a copy of the unabridged Records of the Three Kingdoms, but it's over 2500 pages long. As I'm still not done with the infernal Atlas Shrugged, another big book does not appeal right now.

So, I have to just accept the movie for what it is, and not get into a debate about whether it should be censured for its interpretations of Prime Minister Cao Cao and Zhou Yu, who are treated with more accuracy than usual, even while Woo keeps the practically superheroic qualities of Guan Yu. It's fair to say Woo was looking for the best opportunities to show off the themes he is always drawn to, while getting maximum hardcore action possibilities from his cast of characters.

It's also informed by the success of Lord of the Rings and 300, with the Red Cliff itself reminiscent of Thermopylae as a location where a decisive battle is held. Woo, as far as I can tell, has been informed by the success of LOTR, as much of the film concerns the actions of Zhuge Liang as he endeavours to unite Liu Bei and Sun Quan against Cao Cao, just as much of the final two LOTR books and films show Aragorn and Gandalf trying to break down the division between the rulers of Gondor and Rohan (which makes me wonder if Tolkein ever read anything about the Three Kingdoms). The supporting generals also resemble the colourful characters of the Fellowship, with Guan Yu almlost Legolas-like in his ability to take down huge amounts of enemy soldiers, Sun Shangxiang resembles Eowyn in her efforts to join in with the fighting despite the misogynist fretting of the menfolk, and volatile Zhang Fei, with his booming battle cry, reminded me of Gimli (though Gimli never body-checked a horse).

Of course, the popularity of those movies means we've had our fill of battle scenes that are just overhead shots of phalanxes of cavalry racing towards each other. Luckily, though Red Cliff does feature that, the battle within the Eight Trigrams Formation is unlike anything I've seen before, with thousands of shield-bearing soldiers forming a maze within which an army is utterly devastated in a series of ambushes. Unlike most action scenes (especially the hyper-kinetic gun battles Woo is famous for), this twenty minute sequence is paced surprisingly slowly, but is filled with imaginative twists and turns and lots and lots of blood. Action scene of the year? Very probably.

It also features men respecting each other and giving pointedly adoring looks; in some scenes the admiration Zhuge Liang (Takeshi Kaneshiro) has for Zhou Yu (Tony Leung Chiu-Wai) would qualify as homoerotic if it wasn't for the fact that this is what Woo does. Instead, they're a classic Woo double act, two men forced together by circumstance and filled with admiration for each other, all the while knowing their friendship is almost certainly going to be tested to the brink of destruction by events outside their control. And yes, there are doves. One bravura shot shows a dove fly from Red Cliff, over Cao Cao's navy, and into the heart of his military camp, which is greatly pleasing, especially as it is a showcase for the excellent effects team, who provide work more convincing and better integrated than any other Chinese film I can think of.

One of the reasons I responded to this with such joy (other than that seeing Kurosawa Woo-ised is as gratifying as seeing Peckinpah get the same treatment) is that I also saw Peter Chan's The Warlords recently, and even with Jet Li, Andy Lau, and Takeshi Kaneshiro heading the cast, it was disappointing. One terrific scene with Li charging a row of cannons thrilled me, and a mid-film sequence showing the terrible choices made following the siege of Suzhou was very interesting, but it fell apart in the final thirty minutes, and was so slackly paced prior to this that I struggled to maintain interest. Red Cliff, on the other hand, is a pure joy, and ignore the haters who complain that it is too slow. As the first half of a four-hour movie, it makes perfect sense to structure the movie the way it has been, and I cannot wait to see how all of the narrative threads introduced here are tied up in the final half. Forget the truncated Western version. Chase down a DVD copy of the first half, or find some other way to get hold of it. It's worth the effort.

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