Red Cliff (2008); Directed by John Woo

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John Woo’s epic Red Cliff was butchered for its American release, cut down from its over-four-hour length to two hours. I have read of what was cut, and it actually makes me wince. Things like character motivation, small moments (the tiger hunt for example), set-ups of the historical situation, a voiceover was added at the beginning … Just a mess. It was released in Asia in two parts, and now, through Netflix, you can see the whole thing. I couldn’t recommend it more highly if I tried. Superlatives won’t even do. Only a cliche will express what I mean: Red Cliff, in its full version, is a must-see. A giant hit in Asia (one of the most successful highest-grossing films of all time), it is a universal epic, and yet one of its strengths is how rooted it remains in the culture of the land from which the movie sprung. Its eyes are not on the West, it doesn’t care about us, it is not pandering to us, its eyes are in its own past. This is history writ large, the tale of the Battle of the Red Cliffs, in 208-209 A.D.

One of my side obsessions (I have to kind of pick and choose which I let become the major obsessions, because there are only so many hours in the day) is military strategy through the ages. I love John Keegan’s work (what I’ve read of it anyway), and I tore through Victor Davis Hanson’s Carnage and Culture: Landmark Battles in the Rise to Western Power, trying to follow the moves of cavalry and flanking and pincer formations and all that jazz. I could tell you almost every strategic military move in the Battle of Bunker Hill. It’s part of the history of the region where I grew up, and also my country. The Battle of Red Cliffs is unfamiliar to me, and part of the joys of the film is opening up my mind and my curiosity to that part of Chinese history. It was the end of the Han Dynasty, and alliances were formed to combat the Prime Minister Cao Cao, run amok on his own grandiose power-grab. As with most famous historical stories, there are many versions: the accepted version, the romantic version, the post-modern version, if you will. Wherein does truth lie? Remember: it is those who write the history books who have the final say. At least until someone comes along to examine it again and say, “Now wait just a cotton-pickin’ minute …” For almost a century, John Adams’ and Thomas Jefferson’s “version” of Alexander Hamilton was the accepted version. And Hamilton died young, so he wasn’t around to defend himself, or exonerate himself. It has taken modern-day historians in the last couple of decades to re-examine this historical figure, strip away some of the accumulated prejudices (many of them unexamined) and look at him freshly. Here’s how I like to think about it: To John Adams, Alexander Hamilton was a dangerous individual. He had to be stopped and destroyed. That’s John Adams’s view, and it was very true to him. There was a grandiose self-destructive tyrannical streak in Hamilton. So although I admire Alexander Hamilton immensely (uhm, obviously), I find it interesting to remove myself from partisanship, or a defensive stance and take in what everyone else had to say about him. The battle over Alexander Hamilton continues. Beware those who want to have the last word. They want conversations to END, not continue.

And with Red Cliff, I was in military strategy HEAVEN. Give me outnumbered troops, surrounded on all sides, and have them figure a way out of it, through cleverness, wilyness and sheer trickery (Washington having troops parade past a certain field, looping around to parade again, to give the illusion that there were more soldiers there than there really were) – and I am a happy camper. For example, my favorite scene in Master and Commander, in a film full of great scenes, is the one where they disguise their ship to be other than what it is, a feint, a camouflage, like the bugs who can disguise themselves as twigs. Imagine an entire movie with scenes like that. Imagine an entire movie that immerses you in the minutia of military strategy, in the 3rd century, and you’ll get an idea of the sheer joy of Red Cliff.

But it doesn’t skimp on character, either, which is why it is essential to see it in its unedited version, as John Woo meant it to be seen.

To be honest, I didn’t get all of the names straight, but I’ll do my best with what I have. Red Cliff takes place at the end of the Han Dynasty, when the young untried emperor Sun Quan (played by Zhao Wei, seen in the first stunner of a scene sitting in a giant room in front of his cranky advisors, wearing a fey dangley crown, and he seems soft, like a typical useless monarch, more interested in playing with birds than fighting war) finds himself in a confrontation with a general named Cao Cao (played by Zhang Fengyi in a fantastic performance) over suppressing the upstart warlords in the south. The king resists. But he is not respected by anyone. His word carries no weight (and his transformation from that soft oblivious bird-lover in the first scene to a ferocious and focused warrior is one of the pleasures of this movie). Cao Cao easily sees his chance, and goes off on his own, with a giant army in tow to “pacify” (a terrifying word in military parlance, along the lines of “cleanse”) the South. The empire is thrown into chaos. Divide and conquer, right? A couple of far-seeing men realize that it would be far better to form an alliance than to continue to war with one another, which would weaken them in the face of Cao Cao’s onslaught. Previously warring factions join together. It is tense. The enemy of my enemy is my friend and all that. But who to trust? How will the alliance last? They are outnumbered. Cao Cao has the force of the Empire behind him.

Takeshi Kaneshiro plays Zhuge Liang, a military advisor to the new alliance, a crucial player, who stares at clouds, and wind patterns, based on his experience as a farmer, and comes up with brilliant plans to conquer Cao Cao’s army. It is a marvelous performance, moving and mysterious. Who is this man? We never know the whole story. Does he have a wife? It isn’t known. He is a skilled military tactician, and yet he admits freely that he battles anxiety, which is why he carries a giant bird-feather fan at all times. It relaxes him to fan himself. What an amazing character detail. Never explained. I love a script that has confidence like that. We are left to imagine what it is he is anxious about. He is not pathologized. Nothing like that. On the contrary, we admire him tremendously. He stands by the river. Cao Cao’s forces are massed across the river. It seems that all is lost. He notices that a small turtle is sweating. That means that fog is coming in the next day, which will give them a huge advantage. He is a marvelous character. I love his face. It is a kind and intelligent face.

Zhou Yu (played by Tony Leung) is a veteran warrior who has holed himself up with his ragtag band of men (many of whom are not more than boys), training them relentlessly. He is in service to the Emperor, and yet, what will that mean for him? It is complicated a bit for him because Cao Cao once upon a time fell in love with his wife (played ravishingly by Chi-Ling Lin), and Zhou Yu knows this, so all along the question persists: Did Cao Cao start this war to “capture” his wife? It turns out that this is not just a neurotic question.

Zhou Yu and Zhuge Liang would be fierce foes in any other time, but in this specific time, they become important friends. It is a beautiful and complex portrait of male friendship. There is a scene where they meet, and, after dinner, they play music together, on two different instruments, an intense and competitive duet, the two of them looking to outdo the other, by the sheer virtuosity of their playing. It’s a sexual scene. Sex is an important part of war, maybe the most important part, although rarely acknowledged. How much of war is one guy insisting that his dick is bigger than the other guy’s? And here, in this sensitive and exciting scene, of duelling zithers (or whatever it is they are playing), you feel that these men, without language, have bonded, one to the other. They have said to each other: “You. You are the one. I trust no one. Remember that. But here, in this moment, I trust you. You. You are the one.” It makes all other “buddy movies” pale in comparison, Tony Leung and Takeshi Kaneshiro playing with passion and also one-upmanship, glancing at each other through the scene, a clear sign of intent and desire. Their alliance is not formed with words or a binding contract. It is formed playing music together. Zhou Yu’s wife says to her husband, after their guest leaves, “Zhuge Liang is ready for war.” She could tell. From how he played music. Don’t discount women’s intuition, how it senses the subcurrent. She was right.

THAT is an “action script”.

Preparations for war begin. One of the leaders of a Southern province has his own army (he’s played by Sun Quan, a man of deep convictions, but caution as well), and they are seen early on fighting, and trying to protect the fleeing refugees at the same time. A choice is to be made. A faction of the army is devoted to protecting the refugees, and it becomes clear they will lose the battle if they do not remove those troops to go to the frontlines. But that will leave the refugees unprotected. Sun Quan says to Zhuge Liang, “These are Han people. If we do not protect them, then what is this war for?”

It is a deep and pertinent point, one of the backbones of the script. What is war for? I believe that sometimes you just have to fight. There is a greater good. Stand up and be counted. War is hell, as the saying goes, but so is tyranny. Tyranny is a life of living dead. Better to die for the cause than go down passively under the black boot of a despot. Jafar Panahi is an example of that. As is Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Ryzsard Kapusinski, Vaclav Havel, the men I consider to be my intellectual and spiritual idols. They knew how to fight. But is there such a thing as an honorable war? I believe there is, obviously, but these are not easy questions, especially not when you are on a battlefield. Red Cliff, in its length and scope, grapples with that issue. Honestly, I think, although obviously we are meant to sympathize with the Tony Leung side of the fight, Cao Cao is not a faceless sneering comic-book villain. John Woo is smart. Cao Cao, too, is operating from a set of assumptions, and his own belief in right and wrong. It is just that his version of right and wrong clashes with Zhou Yu’s version. Who is right? Well, the history books tell us that the victor is right. Right? Not so fast. There are scenes when Cao Cao uses dirty tactics, to terrorize his enemy’s morale. Typhoid is raging amongst his soldiers, hundreds of them have died. Instead of cremating them, as per the sanitary customs of the day, instead he sets the dead free on barges, to float over to the enemy camp, where they will then be handled and touched by Zhou Yu’s forces, not knowing that the bodies are infected and contagious. To Zhou Yu, this is not in the rule-book. The rule-book of an “honorable” war. It is important to him to fight with honor. But make no mistake: he wants to crush his enemy. Red Cliff handles these complex issues of warfare with finesse. It’s not so much that we see both sides. It’s that we see that war is brutal. You do what you have to do. And it is best when warriors remember what it is they are fighting for. All of that can be lost in the chaos of the battle. A good commander knows that, and prepares his troops accordingly. Training is key. Watching these men fight, the organization, the shields all coming down, as one, to buttress against the flying arrows, is nothing less than absolutely thrilling. It is brilliant war-time filmmaking. Every scene tops the former. It’s hard to believe that’s true, in a 4-plus hour film, but it’s true.

Zhao Wei (an awesome actress) plays the emperor’s tomboy sister, an accomplished equestrienne and archer, and a woman unwilling to play her assigned role as a woman. She becomes an effective spy, infiltrating Cao Cao’s forces, impersonating a boy, calling to mind Shakespeare’s many heroines in drag, Viola, Rosalind, Portia. How many women have seen such a chance to make a difference, in history, and taken it? Their names are not known to us, but they existed. She is the first over the wall. She has no fear. She is a patriot. Yet John Woo gives her room to be a woman, too, susceptible to things like softness, connection, a possibility of love, in the wrong camp. I have to admit I was afraid for her character. Not so much in terms of what would happen to her, but in how the script would treat her. Would she be used as a gimmick? Would her femaleness be used as a plot point, something to garner cheap sympathy? By that I mean: I was afraid that her womanhood would be revealed, and she would be on the verge of being gang-raped, and she would then be saved by her special friend in the enemy camp. If you think I’m exaggerating, then just picture how such women are usually treated in action movies, from A to Z, and how their “courage” in being “manly” is usually punished in the most female of ways. Red Cliff did not disappoint me, and I take such things very very seriously. I care about how women are portrayed on film. I don’t think they should be always good, or victorious, no. On the contrary. But when womanhood is used cheaply, to bring up primal protective patriarchal responses in the audience, that’s when I get my back up. It’s similar to filmmakers who use the Holocaust as a plot-point, a cheap shortcut to getting the audience on its side. I’m looking at you, Swing Kids. (As my friend Mitchell said, “Swing Kids appears to be about how, despite the Holocaust, a bunch of German teenagers managed to have a good time during the war.”) But Red Cliff didn’t go that way. It’s a stronger film for it. It did not betray her character. It did not betray me, the audience member rooting for her. Things do not “work out” for her, but the film didn’t go the typical route which most by-the-book films do, which can’t seem to figure out how to deal with womanhood. They want to thrill the audience with a fierce female, fighting alongside the men, but then, they don’t know what to do next with her, and, essentially, “put her in her place” by creating a situation of sexual violence from which she must be rescued. You can almost imagine the fevered all-male script conferences that go on: “I know! Let’s have her take a bath in the enemy camp, all afraid she will be discovered – and then – I know! We’ll have a shot of her breasts, close-up, make it really hot, and then we’ll see a soldier peek in on her … and then … I know, let’s have him be shocked, and then let’s have her cover her breasts … and oh, this’ll be great, a bunch of guys will burst in on her, naked … and then, her friend will bust in like Rambo and save her!” To the men who always say that women are being too sensitive about such issues, I reply: Be careful. Be careful what you defend. Especially if you care about art, art that is for all of us. In Red Cliff, Zhao Wei is a force to be reckoned with, even the men she fights alongside of have to admit that. Her maps are beyond brilliant. She helps them win the war. And yet, her heart opens to a friend she makes in the enemy camp. He thinks she’s a boy, he punches her in the stomach at one point, in a fond way, shocking her, and her heart opens up. Tomboys across the world will understand her pain. “Yes … I’m good at kickball … but … I’m also a girl … I want love, too… Can’t I have both??” I’ve rarely seen this strange dynamic portrayed so beautifully, outside of Shakespeare (who did it best).

There are so many scenes to treasure. Too many to count. A couple of my favorites:

– A fight scene early on with a general from Sun Quan’s army. Dammit, I wish I knew his character’s name, and I am sure he is totally famous with Asian audiences, so please, Asian film fans, fill me in: This man saves a baby, a crucial baby, a baby who will continue on the line, and then this man fights off all of the opposing forces with the baby strapped to his back. He is fierce. He is unstoppable. He is an incredible athlete. And yet it never becomes just a stunt-scene. What it is is a fight to the death. The baby must live. That is what this actor is playing, in all of his unbelievable fight sequences. I am so sorry I do not know this man’s name, or character’s name, because this man is so phenomenal, so incredible in his martial arts ability, first of all, but second of all, in his ability to inject worlds of emotion into his fighting. He spars with swords and arrows, in a fight scene that will have you on the edge of your seats, and all you are thinking is DID THE BABY MAKE IT?? This is a testament to his power as an action star. UnbeLIEVable scene.

– A show-stopping scene involving arrows and boats. Zhou Yu’s forces are better on the water, but Cao Cao has more boats. However, Cao Cao’s forces are nervous people, unused to the water. They don’t understand naval strategy. It has already been set up that Zhou Yu’s side don’t have enough arrows. They have 20,000 arrows compared to the 100,000 arrows on the other side. Zhuge Liang comes up with a plan, involving scarecrows, and floating their boats up to within shooting range of the massive enemy, in a scene that has to be seen to be believed. I am not lying when I say that I started clapping when I realized what he was up to, saying out loud, “THIS IS BRILLIANT.” It all dovetails with my obsession with military strategies. Absolutely unbelievable scene, from beginning to end.

– Early on in the film, early in the alliance between Zhou Yu and Zhuge Liang, a horse is giving birth. It is a breech birth. A frightening situation, dangerous to both mother and child. Zhou Yu’s wife lies over the horse, stroking it, commanding people to keep their voices down, because the panicked tones will disturb the birthing mother. It is this scene, and no other, that made me fall in love with the film. It brought tears to my eyes. I entered into THEIR world, and totally left my own.

– Cao Cao’s forces are drawn into a trap, laid for them by the opposition, who don’t have the numbers to win, but who are tricky enough that it just might work. The commander shouts at one point: “FLIP THE SHIELDS.” When they “flip the shields”, well, all I can say is, goosebumps erupted over my flesh, and you’ll just have to see it to see what I am talking about.

– Tony Leung’s first entrance, which is textbook “Entrance of Huge Honking Movie Star”, and satisfies the audience at such a deep level, who have been waiting for him to appear for an hour or so. When we finally see his face (and it is prolonged, John Woo makes us wait), we feel a swansong of relief, “Ohhhh, there he is”, and it is my favorite kind of star entrance.

– The final battle with the fire-boats ramming the banked boats. If I described it, I wouldn’t do it justice.

In the end, what makes Red Cliff special, is its willingness to let us sit in the philosophical implications of the business of war, in a way that calls to mind Apocalypse Now and Kurosawa’s films. You may think that your “version” of history is correct. It must be nice to be so certain.

John Woo has been making flashy and important action films for decades. Red Cliff is his dream project. His most personal film. It shows.

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21 Responses to Red Cliff (2008); Directed by John Woo

  1. I don’t remember the name of the actor either, so I guess I’ll have to see this again.

    Vickie Zhou Wei also starred in a recent version as Mulan. I’m also hoping to find something in English regarding actresses in male roles, either as disguise, or playing the part of a young male character, which is something of a tradition in Chinese language films. Red Cliff has an obvious example of the former, while Brigitte Lin in Dream of the Red Chamber is considered a classic example of the latter.

  2. red says:

    Peter – thanks so much for your perspective on the tradition in Chinese films. I was seeing it through a strictly Elizabethan perspective, which also works – but just goes to show you that it is a universal story-telling device. Very cool. She was a terrific actress.

    Wasn’t our unknown actor just incredible in his part? I was so glad he came back in the end – and of course he was instrumental in the final standoff. A true hero. But then, I wasn’t surprised. Any man who would fight off 10 other men while having a baby strapped to his back is a hero by definition.

  3. The answer to the question is: Hu Jun. Unknown no more.

  4. red says:

    He was incredible. One of my favorite characters. Thanks for tracking him down.

  5. red says:

    A quick glance at his resume shows that he is a famous stage actor in China, as well as a TV actor, known for playing dramatic parts. I had assumed, from his fight scenes in Red Cliff (phenomenal), that he was mainly an action star. His talent is limitless. What an athlete, first of all, but like I mentioned: it was his absolute objective to “keep that baby alive” during that fight scene that really made the scene memorable. He was fighting for his life, but he was playing an objective the entire time. Stuff like that really makes a difference to me. I’m not a big “action for action’s sake” fan – he was in the moment of his character. He’s fantastic.

  6. nightfly says:

    Based on your recommendation, I went and got “Final Cut.” (Thank you thank you! And thanks also to my lovely Ladybug for buying it as a surprise for me when I mentioned it!) Having just finished that, I see a little, just a little, parallel between Red Cliff and what happened with Heaven’s Gate – how it got cut way down and then re-expanded, being a much better movie as a long-player.

    Lots more going on there, of course, though I would love to read a similar behind-the-scenes look at Red Cliff, to know what everyone was thinking when it was time to distribute the film to the foreign markets (meaning, here in the US), and how they came to the decision that “Americans won’t sit through all that.” Since Woo has made Hollywood action flicks, he should know – who else was involved in the choice?

  7. red says:

    Well, Red Cliff was a giant hit in Asia, unlike Heaven’s Gate anywhere. It topped box office records, of all time, there. The decision to cut is far less defensible than with Heaven’s Gate which was a mess at any length.

    Red Cliff was released in two parts in Asia, different release dates even, although the two parts go very well together.

    What can I say: the people running things now in the movies are idiots, more often than not, “suits” with business degrees who don’t understand jackshit.

    The proof was in the box office:

    Giant hit in Asia, released in two parts.

    Flop in America, released in an edited version.

    Dumb.

    It’s one of the best films of the last 20 years.

  8. red says:

    And glad to hear you liked The Final Cut.

  9. nightfly says:

    Oh, I wasn’t trying to say anything about the relative quality. The release in two parts actually reminded me a bit of Kill Bill, as well, but I didn’t just finish that, so I didn’t mention it at first. =) It was only a weird coincidence – didn’t I just see this somewhere? It’s likely that Heaven’s Gate cast no shadow on this picture, but the similarity of how critics in general (and especially overseas) were much more receptive of the longer cut of Gate got me musing.

    So, yeah: LOVED Final Cut. Was going to post on it but came across something else that demanded immediate blog attention. Had to push it back.

  10. Bruce Reid says:

    I like how writing about this film splinters your usually vivid throughlines into a series of offshoots and asides. That’s not a dig or a backhanded compliment; this piece really gets at the sheer scope of Red Cliff, how its massive scale allows it the capacity to be about so much.

    Hu Jun was remarkable, and thanks to Peter for the link, but even as a fan I found Zhang Fengyi’s Cao Cao a revelation. He found so many marvelous, unexpectedly plangent tones in the character; not just his unrequited love and its brief, feeble substitution, but how desperately Cao Cao desired camaraderie and friendship from his fighting men. The smile that blossomed on his face during the soccer match or in strategy sessions with his generals was such a sad little gesture, equally sincere and self-conscious, the thwarted outsider trying to expand into the public role he’s claimed for himself. I’ve read that the shortened version of the film does the most damage to his arc, and while I often find comparing studio-mandated edits to the original versions to be a rewarding exercise that’s reason enough for me to avoid this one forever.

  11. red says:

    Nightfly – yeah, there is a Kill Bill correlation. I think, in general, it’s better for movies to not be so long. It’s a rare movie that needs to be over 2 hours long. But then there are some that really need that length – how on earth would one CUT Reds? To me, every scene adds to the collage-like power of that story – but I can understand why distributors get anxious. Unless the film is a giant hit, they will lose money – Long movies don’t sell as many tickets.

    It seems to me that the situation with Heaven’s Gate is: there was no real story there, and at four hours – you can’t get your act together enough to tell a story?? I actually don’t think the film itself is as much of a debacle as the filming OF it was – it’s a gorgeous looking movie, and it’s refreshingly opaque at times, refusing to spell things out.

    The difficulty comes in cutting down a movie that really has no storyline!

    I would love to have been a fly on the wall at the editing-conversation for Red Cliffs. The tiger hunt scene for example – which comes early on in the film. It was cut for the US version. I suppose it “slows things down” – but it is an ESSENTIAL scene that shows the transformation of the useless Emperor into someone who can fight. He hasn’t been “out in the world” ever – his bow and arrow is literally collecting dust – but it becomes apparent that he needs to step off the damn throne and get his hands dirty. He goes out to hunt a tiger with Tony Leung and his tomboy sister – it’s a beautifully shot scene, terrifying and haunting – and totally important to the story.

    But I can see dumbass execs sitting around a table and saying, “Well, we obviously can lose THAT scene …”

    You can?

  12. red says:

    Nightfly – hope you get to see Red Cliff. It’s an amazing movie!!

  13. red says:

    Bruce – haha. It is hard for me, sometimes, to hold back the tangents. Actually, my paragraph on Alexander Hamilton had ballooned into something even more gigantic and I finally deleted most of it – saving it for its own post. Tangent, thy name is Sheila Kathleen.

    Fascinating, your thoughts on Cao Cao. I absolutely loved his performance, too, and should have said more about it. The soccer scene was fantastic. One of the things about his performance – and I sort of got at it in my review – is that you can see his motivations. He’s not a sneering villain. He is ruthless and in many ways not honorable – but at the same time, I felt that he was just trying to do well with the cards he was dealt. His inexperience with naval matters, for example … and how, in a hasty moment, he has the only two guys with naval experience beheaded – He’s not thinking clearly. He’s starting to lose his grip. He rules by fear. Which leaves him isolated. I thought he captured that perfectly.

  14. red says:

    And, frankly, in that first scene with the Emperor – I was on his side. I would have been frustrated with the uselessness of such a monarch as well.

  15. red says:

    NF – I’ve been thinking about your Heaven’s Gate comment and I would say that, aside from being cut down in length, there really is no comparison since Heaven’s Gate, at any legnth, was a trainwreck (albeit a beautifully shot one). John Woo’s film had none of those problems. It’s an epic, like any other, very successful, and is the highest grossing film in Asia to date. So Heaven’s Gate isn’t even in the same universe, except for the fact that it was edited down (something that happens to most movies).

    A better analogy would be Once Upon a Time in America, a sweeping strange epic, filmed symbolically and intensely – not a linear story at all, not in chronological order – and it was so brilliant that it was butchered and ironed out and clipped within an inch of its life, ruining its magic, much of which has to do with a slow accumulation of images, seemingly unconnected, but finally, all dovetailing. It’s like a Nabokov novel or something. A work of genius. What was done to that film is unforgivable (Roger Ebert wrote a great review of it, the first sentence being: “This is a murdered movie.”), and thankfully it has been restored to its proper strange and haunting format … The film did not do well in its shortened ironed-out form, because, duh, Sergio Leone kind of knew what he was doing, knew how he wanted to handle the flashbacks, and to keep the film in a sort of dreamspace, despite the fact that it is basically a film about gangsters in New York City in the early 20th century.

    Anyway: You can now see the film in the way it was meant to be seen, on DVD – and the shortened version is history. It had premiered at Cannes, and got great reviews. Then the American release came, and the idiots in charge rearranged the whole thing. Cutting it, chopping it (similar to what happened with Welles’s Magnificent Ambersons). Only with Ambersons, that original is lost to history – something that Welles could not speak of without tearing up, to the end of his life.

    The decision to edit the movie had nothing to do with how well it had played at Cannes. It had played like gangbusters at Cannes. It was mere fear of how long it was. Yes, maybe it was too long, but sometimes movies need to be that long. It had played GREAT in its original length, and played HORRIBLY in its edited version.

    The same thing happened with Red Cliff.

  16. red says:

    Peter / Bruce:

    What did you think of the last shot? It was a bit too Middle Earth-y to me, and I expected to see Hobbits cavorting by in their pajamas, but I might be missing something.

    I loved the last scene, but it was the pullback to the landscape which just didn’t look real – even to the rainbow – it looked too magical. What do you think?

    Is it that John Woo was showing the upcoming “time of peace”, the togetherness of the alliance – or maybe that he wanted to show it as a sort of storybook ending, since he had based his version of the film on a book?

    Lemme know what you think. It’s the only moment in the whole thing I wasn’t crazy for.

  17. Bruce Reid says:

    The very ending was rather gratingly idyllic, yeah, but the final scene before it worked for me as a last reminder of one of the key themes of the film: that Leung and Kaneshiro are allies by circumstance, and just because their friendship grew doesn’t mean they won’t find themselves on opposite lines in some future battle. That it didn’t happen–possibly what Woo was suggesting, as you say–doesn’t negate the clear-eyed mutual assessment these men had of each other. This lack of naivete was a refreshing beat in a populist epic, so I’ll forgive what I agree was a misstep into that mode for the final sendoff.

  18. red says:

    Bruce – yes, the final scene between the two men was just great. I loved the shot where they were totally eye to eye. A bold choice. How about Leung’s wife calling after Kaneshiro: “Make sure Meng Meng isn’t a war horse.” I felt some hope there … that whatever may come to pass, Kaneshiro was a man of honor, and he would remember her wish for that little horse.

    It was a greatly written scene. They are talking about war, but they are really talking about their relationship. “Of all people, I would fear meeting you on the battle field.” High high praise.

    It was just that last shot with the rainbow that went into Hobbit-territory for me.

    But I loved how war was so the central focus of this movie – it kept its eye on the ball. Not just battles, but preparations and strategies and how war affects everyone – from the little boy playing the flute as the troops went through drills, to Tony Leung’s wife and the child she is carrying. I loved how he said to her, after the big confrontation at the end, “Are you both okay?” Such a husbandly human thing to say. I loved the details like that.

    And I’m a bit of a warmonger. I love the politics of war, the machinations, the power struggles and personality clashes … FDR, Stalin and Churchill at Yalta, all that. I was in heaven watching this film.

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  20. Linus says:

    I saw the long uncut version of Red Cliff at the Walter Reade in Lincoln Center this past July 4th – it was a last-minute invite from a friend, and I missed the fireworks in favor of the film. No regrets.

    After the screening I browsed the reviews some and found the appalling New York Times coverage: they pan the picture and don’t even seem aware that there was an original version that ran nearly two hours longer. I find the Times pretty even-handed overall, a fabric punched through here and there with glimpses of brilliance and marked by slashes of puzzling stupidity, and they came close to hitting bottom with that one.

    The film was such a glorious spectacle – too much to digest fully, and too quick to blur with a bit of time gone by. I do love long movies: they have a chance to pack their punch neatly, languorously, right in front of you. They don’t breathe the same way on TV, but what’s a body to do otherwise? I’ve seen Lawrence of Arabia, Marketa Lazarova, Red Cliff, The Leopard, and mostly recently the (divided) Mesrine pictures in movie houses over the last couple of years, and I’m waiting with fingers crossed for some kind programmer to bring back 1900.

  21. sheila says:

    Linus – I agree with you about long movies, and how so much of Red Cliff was in the TEXTURE – character bits, moments of humor, things that may not be plot-driven but are absolutely essential to the audience clicking in with it. Like the tiger hunt.

    This is an amazing movie and I am still sorry I didn’t get the chance like you did to see it on the big screen. I am sure that would be a whole other kind of spectacular experience.

    One of the best movies I’ve seen in years.

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