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Movie Review: Red Cliff

By Philip Martin

This article was published December 25, 2009 at 12:26 a.m.

— Red Cliff is a triumphant return to form for John Woo, who despite ascending to the A-list elevations of Tom Cruise franchise directorship (Mission: Impossible II) never really found purchase in the rocky soil of Hollywood. Though a few critics thought 1997’s Face/Off nearly the equal of his genre-defining Hong Kong balletic hard violence shoot-em ups The Killer and Hard Boiled, the longer Woo stayed in Hollywood, the more McG-like he became.

Yet while Red Cliff represents a retrenchment of Woo’s career, it’s by no means a retreat. It’s the most expensive movie ever made in China, and one of the most successful (it recently passed Titanic as the country’s all-time box office champ). It features a cast of thousands, and - in China - a running time of nearly five hours. The version released outside China is pared down to about half that, and Western audiences are unfamiliar with its source material- Luo Guanzhong’s 14th-century historical novel, Romance of the Three Kingdoms, which runs approximately 800,000 words and introduces more than 1,000 characters, most of whom are believed to have been historical figures.

In China, the book has the resonance of the Bible or Shakespeare’s plays - it has so deeply permeated the culture that people don’t have to have actually read it for its characters and allusions to have currency. Since most of us aren’t steeped in the lore of second and third century China, the fall of the Han dynasty and the battle of Red Cliffs, we’re likely to have trouble following the plot, despite the dubiously “helpful” voice-over narration and character-identifying subtitles. (This is a film where a scorecard might prove very useful.)

Still, Woo’s action sequences are stunning, and the epic ambitions of the film are wondrously realized, with a giant cast augmented by seemingly millions of virtual extras. People (like me) who love Chinese cinema primarily for its sound and fury will not be disappointed, even if Woo’s vision is shamefully abridged in this “international” version.

Some critics, more expert in Chinese cinema than myself, have suggested that interested moviegoers forgo this Red Cliff and seek out the full five-hour version of the film, which has apparently been widely bootlegged. I have no opinion about that, and while I’m sure the longer version is in many ways superior, I’m content with this inscrutable creature - this beautiful, blood-flecked swan. John Woo’s best work has always been mysterious to me. He makes operas - we don’t need to understand the words to sense their power.

MovieStyle, Pages 36 on 12/25/2009

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