Heroic bloodshed auteur John Woo was once a cult film hero to a generation of Hong Kong cineastes. With the arguable exception of Face Off (1997), fifteen years of Hollywood hackwork somewhat tarnished his reputation, but now Woo is back on form with his most ambitious and exciting work in years. Based on the 14th century novel, “Romance of the Three Kingdoms”, a romanticised account of actual historical events, this first instalment of a two-part epic won over Asian critics and became a box-office juggernaut sweeping across the continent.
1800 years ago, in Han dynasty China, power-hungry prime minister Cao Cao (Farewell My Concubine’s Zhang Fengyi) manipulates the boy emperor into declaring war upon his uncle, Liu Bei (Yau Yung) and Prince Sun Quan (Chang Chen). With his armies crushed, his wife slain and kingdom in peril, Liu Bei sends his chief strategist, Zhu-Ge Liang (House of Flying Daggers star Takeshi Kaneshiro) to the kingdom of Wu, hoping to forge an alliance with the cautious Sun Quan and their great hero, General Zhou Yu (superstar Tony Leung Chiu-wai). The gallant, thoughtful Zhou forges an instant friendship with wise, literate Zhu-Ge. Aided by feisty Princess Sun Shangxiang (Vicky Zhao Wei), they persuade Sun Quan to defy his cowardly ministers and fight the Han invaders.
Attempting to deflate his enemies’ morale, Cao Cao murders their messenger. Meanwhile, his generals are perturbed to discover this war is being waged not solely for conquest, but also because Cao Cao has designs on Zhou’s beautiful wife (Lin Chi-Ling). Assembling an impregnable fortress and a vast, unstoppable armada of two thousand ships, Cao Cao mounts a naval attack to conceal his true intent to invade by land. However, he doesn’t count on “the Eight Diagrams”, an ingenious battle formation drawn from Chinese mythology, designed by Zhou and Zhu-Ge. The battle of Red Cliff has begun.
The road to Red Cliff has not been an easy one for John Woo and producer Terrence Chang. Original cast members Chow Yun Fat and Ken Watanabe pulled out (although Chow will allegedly cameo in part two); a fatal accident cost one stuntman his life and injured six others; a Hollywood special effects team had to be let go when they proved too costly; their Korean replacements agreed to start fires but not put them out (?); and Tony Leung swapped roles with Takeshi Kaneshiro at the last minute. To add insult to injury, a rival production: Three Kingdoms: Resurrection of the Dragon (2008) featuring its own galaxy of stars, opened first and did pretty well at the domestic box-office. The omens were not good.
Thankfully, this gargantuan Hong Kong/China/USA/Japan/South Korea co-production, allegedly the most expensive Asian film ever made, proves money well spent. In his first period martial arts epic since Last Hurrah for Chivalry (1978), Woo paints broad strokes across the vastest canvas he has ever had. Like a scroll artist, he highlights individual moments of heroism, grace, and chivalry amidst sprawling set-pieces. It is very much a romance in keeping with the source novel, rather than a work of historical accuracy and typically for a Chinese literary classic, there are dozens of characters to keep track of, but audiences who kept up with The Lord of the Rings (2001) should not struggle with this.
Aided by long-time collaborators, stunt coordinator Corey Yuen Kwai and assistant director Patrick Leung, Woo makes intelligent use of computer graphics and spectacular stunt-work for his astounding battle scenes, matching the grandeur of Hollywood epics with the poetic ferocity of his early films and those of his mentor Chang Cheh. The standout set-piece has to be the amazing, “Eight Diagrams” sequence wherein Han invaders find themselves trapped within the labyrinthine formations of the Wu army. Massed shields slide open like trap doors as, one by one, soldiers are dragged to a screaming death. Although one misses Chow Yun Fat, it remains exhilarating to watch Tony Leung and his superheroes cut a swathe through evildoers.
However, and this may be a first for John Woo, Red Cliff’s most memorable qualities lie outside the battlefield. It will be interesting to see how they fare when both films are extensively re-cut and merged into one movie for Western consumption. Gore-hounds who only love Woo for his violent excesses will not like this movie, nor is it in the Hollywood filmmaking style. Very Chinese in its use of symbolism and visual metaphor, the film drew critical praise in Asia for its emphasis on philosophy and strategy. A fine scene worthy of John Ford exhibits Zhou’s chivalry and fair-mindedness when he deals with three of his men who have stolen an oxen from a young farm boy; Zhu-Ge delivers a newborn foal as a metaphor for the young kingdom’s birth; a musical duel illustrates Zhou’s conflicted state of mind; and a tiger hunt becomes a test of Sun Quan’s judgement and fortitude. Woo crafts these scenes beautifully and one hopes they survive in the Western cut.
Tony Leung and Takeshi Kaneshiro (dreamily introduced lying in a field contemplating the thundering hoofs of Han invaders) dominate proceedings, although Chang Chen makes an impression as the uncertain, young prince. Weakest link has to be Taiwanese model, Lin Chi-Ling, in her film debut as Zhou’s slightly simpering wife. Apparently, Chinese audiences find fault with her voice, but she isn’t terrible and non-Chinese speakers certainly won’t notice. However, it-girl Vicky Zhao Wei (of Shaolin Soccer (2001) fame) excels as the most engaging heroine in John Woo’s entire filmography. A tomboy princess who fights as well as any boy, paralyses men (and a horse!) with her special martial arts trick and - perhaps understandably - has trouble finding a husband.
The closing scenes hint at cracks building in the allegiance between Liu Bei and Sun Quan, and an almost-romance blossoming between Sun Shangxiang and Zhu-Ge, which will hopefully develop further. Long-time John Woo fans will enjoy the return of his trademark white doves, in an audacious climactic shot that surprisingly includes that ancient Chinese sport… football! Roll on, part two!
One of the most influential directors working in the modern action genre. Hong Kong-born Woo (real name Yusen Wu) spent a decade making production-line martial arts movies for the Shaw Brothers before his melodramatic action thriller A Better Tomorrow (1987) introduced a new style of hyper-realistic, often balletic gun violence.
It also marked Woo's first collaboration with leading man Chow-Yun Fat, who went on to appear in a further three tremendous cop/gangster thrillers for Woo - A Better Tomorrow II, The Killer and Hard Boiled. The success of these films in Hong Kong inspired dozens of similar films, many pretty good, but few with Woo's artistry or emphasis on characters as well as blazing action.
In 1993, Woo moved over to Hollywood, with predictably disappointing results. Face/Off was fun, but the likes of Broken Arrow, Windtalkers and Mission: Impossible 2 too often come across as well-directed, but nevertheless generic, studio product. Needs to work with Chow-Yun Fat again, although his return to Hong Kong with Red Cliff proved there was life in the old dog yet.