The upcoming release of Red Cliff, director John Woo's newest film to fill American theaters, may strike some viewers with a feeling of déjà vu. After all, didn't Woo already release the same film (or two?) in 2008?
To clarify for the befuddled Asian film aficionado, Woo's current Red Cliff release is a new 150-minute edit of the original two-part, five-hour version of Red Cliff, previously released for Asian audiences. Both films rely on source material from Luo Guanzhong's pre-modern Chinese war epic Romance of the Three Kingdoms, though the non-Asian release strays further away from the source material, condensing the ten stories from the original into about three, give or take. While this reviewer is always willing to watch all of the John Woo material the studios have to offer -- will having three separate Red Cliff films be overkill?
As it turns out, the multiple releases of Red Cliff reveals more about Woo's wisdom as a producer, rather than the ego of a "multiple director's cut"-type of filmmaker. The new non-Asian release of Red Cliff, a re-edit of the most expensive Asian-financed film to date, opens the narrative beyond the audience of Asian and action film lovers. The added storytelling tactics in the non-Asian Red Cliff release made the film an enjoyable, lucid experience for non-specialists. The Asian release of Red Cliff relied heavily on knowledge of the Luo Guanzhong novel, as a guide to make sense of its laundry list of characters. By contrast, the non-Asian release employs character titles to introduce names and relationships between characters, a crucial innovation for those unfamiliar with the source material.
Similarly, voiceover guides the movement between different dramatic vignettes. In some cases, the use of titles and voiceover can be characterized as sloppy filmmaking; however, in the US release of Red Cliff, the additional cues reflect Woo's understanding of the divide between Western Shakespearean-based storytelling and the episodic narrative structure of pre-modern Chinese literature.
Beyond the more obvious financial benefits of a worldwide audience, Red Cliff is Woo's attempt to create a vehicle for Asian source material in the US film market. In the recent Asia Pacific Arts interview about the US release of Red Cliff, Woo argues for the importance of cross-cultural storytelling, to broaden international exposure to Asian culture.
"I was abroad for so many years," Woo says, "and people were so polite to me, so good. I had many chances to practice, many opportunities to make friends. But I think Westerners do not understand Chinese culture well enough. They only understand the West. I want them to better understand us, so [that's why] I chose to make the Red Cliff."
As a director working in Hollywood making American action movies, he has long been eager to see a more equal transfer of stories between the U.S. and Asia. In fact, Woo has wanted to make a film version of The Romance of the Three Kingdoms for twenty years, since his first major star turn as the director of A Better Tomorrow (1986).
Making a US release of the Red Cliff narrative begins to rectify what he rightly perceives as a unidirectional flow of cultural narratives from the US to China. The production of Red Cliff in China -- as a financial collaboration between Japan, Korea, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Mainland China and the US -- has also created a new template for large-scale multilateral Asian co-productions. Bilateral production relationships between Asian territories are already on the upswing, following China's accession to WTO in 2000. Also, after 2003's CEPA [Closer Economic Partnership Arrangement (Mainland China-Hong Kong)], collaboration between the Mainland Chinese and Hong Kong film industries increased dramatically. Similarly, the weakening of the Korean domestic film industry, following the end of its quota system for U.S. films, has sent Korean filmmakers to China. Films like Red Cliff help to create a new kind of pan-Asian filmmaking capacity.
The popular success of Woo and company's non-martial arts-based historical action crossover is no small feat. It should be noted that scholars and intellectuals on both sides of the Pacific have panned Red Cliff, emphasizing its lack of faithfulness to one of the canonical works of pre-modern Chinese literature. From the perspective of literary adaptation, Red Cliff is by no means a four star film. Woo and company do understand the unique skill set required to make a co-production with legs in both the U.S. and Asia. Woo has already had major box office successes in Hollywood action films, most notably with the action blockbuster Mission: Impossible II (2000), yet he started his filmmaking career under the tutelage of Asian filmmaking luminaries Zhang Che and Jackie Chan. What Woo's dynamite dual hemisphere versions of Red Cliff suggests is that box office gold in both markets at the same time likely requires an in-depth understanding of how to excel in each market individually. Let filmmakers on fortune-seeking trips to Asia heed warning.
But aside from all of the meta-discourse on transnational filmmaking, how was the US release of the film? How did it differ from the two-part Red Cliff extravaganza? The American version makes much more of the relationship between general of the Wu state, Cao Cao (Zhang Fengyi), and general Zhou Yu's bride, Xiao Qiao (Lin Chiling), as a motivation for combat. This hetero-normative narrative device is most disappointing in the U.S. release, especially when images of Cao Cao and Xiao Qiao interrupt one of the most bromantic scenes in recent cinematic history: a candle-lit Chinese qin instrument duet between Zhou Yu (Tony Leung Chiu-Wai) and Zhuge Liang (Takeshi Kaneshiro). In the Asian release of the film, the charismatic back and forth between the two characters was spliced only with occasional shots of the lovely Xiao Qiao, who also seemed to be entranced by chemistry of two of Asia's most charismatic male lead actors. Unfortunately for Tony and Takeshi fans, the same scene in the U.S. release is cut with images of Cao Cao preparing for battle and staring at drawings of Xiao Qiao. For the bizarre, homoerotic culmination of the Lin-Leung-Kaneshiro love triangle, check out the film's final scenes.
What about the effects? Red Cliff's use of CGI offers a step up from Zhang Yimou-level graphics, truly bringing Hollywood to Chinese filmmaking. Woo's experience in the gaming world with Stranglehold shows here, as the action of computer-generated sequences takes on a visceral, dramatic, nearly 360 degree feel. Gamers and film buffs alike will appreciate the film's lyrical, yet testosterone-infused action sequences.
Whether for the luscious graphics, the boundary-breaking production practices, or the palpable bromantic tension, the American release of Red Cliff is worth checking out. Just refrain from relying on the movie for your next Chinese literature exam.