Tony Leung (a little airbrushed?) as Zhou Yu
Tony Leung (a little airbrushed?) as Zhou Yu

I thoroughly enjoyed Red Cliff. I’m a fan of wu xia, John Woo action choreography, Tony Leung and Takeshi Kaneshiro, so it couldn’t really fail.

If you don’t know the background to this, the most expensive Asian film so far, it is important to sort out a couple of points. In East Asia the film was released in two parts which together totalled over four hours. Part 1 was released in 2008 before the Beijing Olympics in China and a little later in other East Asian territories. Part 2 was released early in 2009. The ‘Western’ version is a single film (148 minutes in the UK). That’s the version I watched. It would appear that it cuts a great deal of the lead up to the ‘Battle of the Red Cliff’ and is therefore more action-orientated than the Asian Part 1. I thought it was quite coherent as a narrative and the only ‘wrong note’ in the whole film was a dreadful commentary in an American voice which attempted to explain the historical background over the opening credits. For a terrible moment I thought I was going to be presented with a film dubbed into American English. By contrast, in the Chinese version this history was put on screen as text in a scroll. God only knows why we couldn’t have had that in English. (I have no objection to American voices per se, but they aren’t appropriate in a film about 3rd Century China.)

I suppose it is odd to watch a grand Chinese epic – based on the historical records about the Three Kingdoms – at a time when the contemporary Chinese leadership is being held to account for the troubles experienced by the Uighurs of Western China, who feel oppressed by the Han Chinese. The film’s narrative focuses on the Han people of the ‘Southlands’ (the Yangtse Valley) finding allies in the kingdom to the East and fighting off armies from the North under a ‘Prime Minister’ who has the Han Emperor under his control.  This sets up a complex play about loyalties and ethnicities/nationalities. The overwhelming numbers of the Northern Armies (bulked out by the ‘surrendered armies’ of other warlords) are matched by the military cunning, education and all round genius of the men (and women) of the South. I guess there will be some comments about the ideological projects of these various narratives about the founding myths of China but this one seems to stress the friendships, loyalties and honour amongst the victors rather than the ‘rightness’ of their enterprise.

This is a ‘global film’ which includes sound crews from Australia and digital effects from America and India as well as a cast drawn from China, Mongolia, Hong Kong, Taiwan and Japan. The crew are mainly Chinese but I’m sure there must be a few Koreans in there somewhere as well. The overall budget is listed as $80 million, which seems a bargain. For my money it’s easily as accomplished as Lord of the Rings or other Hollywood features.

I was a fan of John Woo’s work in Hong Kong but thought that is Hollywood output was generally poor. It was fun to see some of the old traits reappearing here with a warrior strapping a baby to his back in a rescue attempt a la the closing sequence of A Better Tomorrow and the use of caged birds and the inevitable dove/pigeon. Woo seems to have found his mojo in the fight sequences which were beautifully staged using wirework (I’m guessing) alongside CGI. (I’ve seen complaints that the fighting doesn’t look historically accurate, but this is a form of wu xia – martial chivalry – and flying through the air is conventional. (Don’t miss the final scenes.) But the biggest pleasure was just watching Takeshi Kaneshiro having a ball playing the strategist and playfully sparring with Tony Leung on top form. When Tony assumes his Zen-like calm and his firm-set jaw he has absolutely no rivals as the King of Cool. Perhaps I’ll buy the two parts from Hong Kong, it’s aggravating to think we are missing some parts of the film over here.