Nether Regions 12.22.09: Red Cliff Part 1
Posted by Chad Webb on 12.22.2009
You might have heard of John Woo's new film Red Cliff, but the debut column edition of "Nether Regions" examines the first part of the full version of this new epic. Do yourself a favor and click now!
Nether Regions started as a segment of the Big Screen Bulletin that meant to showcase films that have been discontinued on DVD, are out of print in the United States, are only available in certain regions outside the United States, or are generally hard to find. Now it is a column all its own! You might ask "Why should I care about a film I have no access to?" My goal is to keep these films relevant because some of them genuinely deserve to be recognized. Every time I review a new film I will have a list of those I covered below so you can see if they have been announced for DVD release, or are still out of print.
My banner is not prepared yet, but this map of the DVD region codes should suffice for now.
Red Cliff Part 1
Starring: Tony Leung, Takeshi Kaneshiro, and Fengyi Zhang Directed By: John Woo Written By: John Woo, Khan Chan, Cheng Kuo, Heyu Sheng Theatrical Release Date: Shortened version released on November 25, 2009 Missing Since: 2008 Existing Formats: Import/Region 0 DVDs Netflix Status: Not Available Availability: Only available through Amazon used sellers
A few weeks ago, you might have noticed that Red Cliff, the new film from John Woo, landed in theaters with a limited release. This version of the film is approximately 2 and a half hours long. So, if the film is in theaters, how can it be qualified to be a "Nether Regions" article? The answer is because the full version is double that running time. It is an epic that required two parts in China. This review will be for "Part 1" only. "Part 2" will arrive next week. In total, both parts will be around 5 hours in length, so some significant cuts were made for the edition Americans have access to. I have not seen the shortened American release. I felt it necessary to view it the way it was meant to be seen.
The reason the film was condensed is because the studio thought that only the Chinese would be familiar with the characters and their exploits. They thought Americans would be confused. I wonder if anyone argued that it might have the opposite effect, and that some might be enticed by Chinese history. Oh well. I can bet that the studio was not keen on marketing a 5 hour film either. Che was not breaking the box office last year. Nevertheless, I sought the full version out before I even knew the US was releasing a shortened one. I bought both parts on Blu-Ray quite some time ago, and have procrastinated in watching them until now. It is likely that the full epic will not get a Region 1 DVD release. However, it is available via used Amazon sellers. It is not exactly hard to find if you know where to look, and it will cost some money.
Red Cliff is John Woo's first Chinese film since 1992. Apart from Face/Off and an average Mission Impossible II, his American efforts have been less than fulfilling. Gradually it appeared that the man who influenced so many with his brilliant no holds barred action style had lost his edge. That sharpness has returned with Red Cliff Part 1. Though I have not watched "Part 2" yet, I was mesmerized by this engrossing, slick, and intimately sweeping saga. At the age of 63, Director John Woo is far from finished showing the world his many talents.
It is the final days of the Han Dynasty, and Prime Minister Cao Cao (Fengyi Zhang) has forced Emperor Xian to make a decision regarding the declaration of war on Liu Bei (Yong You) and Sun Quan (Chen Chang). They are Southern warlords, and Cao Cao claims that war is needed because they are rebels. Xian reluctantly agrees. Cao Cao dives into action against Liu Bei first in the southern province of Jingzhou. Cao Cao defeats them quickly, but more importantly, he starts attacking the civilians who are being led to safe ground by Liu Bei. While Liu Bei is busy with the civilians in battle, his wife and son are desperately trying to escape the chaotic village area. Unfortunately, his wife commits suicide, but hands her infant son to Zhao Yun (Jun Hu), a brave warrior who weaves through the enemy so he can return Liu Bei's son safely to him. This defeat prompts Liu Bei to send his chief advisor, Zhu Ge Liang (Takeshi Kaneshiro), to persuade Sun Quan and his Grand Viceroy Zhou Yu (Tony Leung) to form an alliance in hopes of decreasing the amount of troops which outnumber them.
Since this takes place in the Three Kingdoms of ancient China, John Woo stated he used Records of the Three Kingdoms as a blueprint moreso than the historical novel Romance of the Three Kingdoms. This does use some fictional characters, but it does not take long to realize that Woo's goal was not a 100% historically accurate film. That's what documentaries are for. His Red Cliff is much more than that. It combines all of John Woo's strengths as a filmmaker from the tense action and adventure to the heartfelt and quiet moments that are spaced flawlessly.
I have seen countless war films and historical epics over the years. The first war film where I noticed how much strategy can affect a campaign was Zulu, the terrific 1964 British film starring Michael Caine. I was blown away by how hypnotizing the battle sequences were because of the strategy that was explained and employed. I was blown away again with this portion of Red Cliff, which utilizes a magnificent mixture of unique formations, horse riding, crafty tactics, and even martial arts to aid in victory. This integration of actual stratagem heightens the interest of the viewer to the war being fought. It can be more intriguing than the usual tuning out that occurs while soldiers shoot one another and clumsily clang swords. Woo makes sure we are involved in the clash.
As far as trickery is concerned, the first battle in the Jingzhou province is particularly entrancing. Liu Bei's troops know they are vastly outnumbered, but they have the sun on their side. Led by the animal-like General Zhang Fei (Jinsheng Zang) and his incredibly brave brother Guan Yu, the small army waits patiently as Cao Cao sends his fierce horses to dismantle his opponents. Just as they get close enough, Liu Bei's men turn their shields around to reveal a reflecting metal that instantly blinds the first wave of Cao Cao's men. Ever get blinded by the sun in your car and have trouble seeing? That in a sense will give you an idea of this scene, but John Woo augments the sequence with truly glorious visuals. General Zhang is easily the most memorable looking character as his wild hair and beard, combined with his deep roar of a voice makes him an especially intimidating person to be across from on the field of battle.
His brother Guan Yu (portrayed splendidly by Ba Sen Zha Bu) on the other hand, will run straight into a large group of soldiers and fend them off in what seems like the most outrageous of circumstances. For instance, when we witness a scene where someone has over a dozen spears pointed at their neck, it usually means the warrior must surrender. How could he possibly escape it? Guan Yu does not seem to be bothered by this, and proves how cunning and smooth his skills are. He steals the spears from others like a lizard tongue would snatch an insect. Cao Cao greatly admires the loyalty and abilities of Liu Bei's men. While the Prime Minister might have 800,000 troops behind him, few of them are loyal, or have the valuable assets in battle.
Cao Cao is not a cartoonish villain. He is a man with a mission. Everyone but the Emperor sees it. His ultimate aim is the throne. He is a very confident and arrogant leader, but does not take his enemy lightly, and he understands his own weaknesses just as well as Liu Bei and Sun Quan do. Cao Cao was originally supposed to be played by Ken Watanabe, but this sparked an immediate protest from those who objected to a Japanese actor playing a historical Chinese figure. Instead, Zhang Fengyi assumed the role, and it was a wise choice. He fits the parts better with his piercing gaze. Watanabe would not have meshed with the cast, and it could have resulted in Last Samurai comparisons.
(L-R) Hu Jun, director John Woo, Chi-ling Lin, Tony Leung and Zhao Wei attend the 'Red Cliff' photocall at the Carlton Hotel during the 61st International Cannes Film Festival on May 19 , 2008 in Cannes, France
One of the primary stars, and one of the best Asian actors, is Tony Leung, whose character of Zhou Yu, the Grand Viceroy for Sun Quan is where the main conflict lies. His wife, Xiao Qiao, is described as the most beautiful woman in the land, and Cao Cao wants her. Xiao Qiao is played by Lin Chi-ling, who established chemistry with Tony Leung without any trouble. She accepts her husband's responsibility, and takes good care of him, but she is not an outspoken supporter of this violent war. Her opinion is conveyed subtly during the birth of a calf. She makes Zhou Yu promise her that when it grows up, it will not become a war horse. She wants at least one living thing to not be touched by the brutality of war.
Zhu Ge Liang is the core of the inevitable alliance. He is the intelligence, the voice, and the person who calms the fears and worries of the Generals. Takeshi Kaneshiro gives a wonderfully understated performance as Zhu Ge, whose fondness for the arts is evident. Another superb character is Princess Shang Xiang, a tomboyish female who wants to join the alliance males in battle, but is initially laughed at. Her knowledge of pressure points shuts the mouths of any detractors. Zhao Wei is energetic and spunky as the Princess, who can get away with just about anything due to her title. The rest of the acting is uniformly first-rate with You Yong as Liu Bei, a middle-aged leader whose intentions are just. He wants the best for his people. Chang Chen's Sun Quan is the only character that leaves room for development.
The second major battle has Cao Cao's forces advancing towards Red Cliff by land and water. The alliance recycles an alleged "outdated" formation known as Bagua Formation, a.k.a the Eight Trigrams Formation. It resembles a tortoise shell from the air. They lure Cao Cao's horses into a trap and basically swallow them whole like easy prey to the mouth of a beast. It truly is marvelous to watch this unfold. Woo's 100,000+ extras are all disciplined and unwavering as the plan is employed. Morale is also important for the troops, on both sides for that matter. The allies argue that even though everyone is aware of the limited number of men, as long as they are in good spirits, it can be superior to Cao Cao's large force of unreliably miserable soldiers.
Cao Cao suffers a defeat, but charges on regardless, and prepares for his Naval plan. Many historical epics, like Troy for example, use the jaw dropping image of thousands of ships, but John Woo introduces this in a way I appreciated. The scene begins from the inside of a ship, and then proceeds upward steadily with tension, making the effect increasingly powerful. In the end of "Part 1", both sides are regrouping, but both are continually thinking of ways to outsmart the other. Cao Cao's true intentions also become clear.
I will hold off on praising the cinematography, editing, costumes, and music until "Part 2" is complete, but rest assured, each of those duties were well represented thus far. I admit I waited too long in finally popping this into my player. I was hooked from the very first scene, and almost infatuated during the first battle. I shudder to think what was excised from the American version. John Woo manages to juggle the fast-paced fighting with the lingering tender instances inside the separate encampments with dignity and vigor. I have also learned a great deal about this culture, including the game Cuju (not to be confused with the evil dog Cujo), which is similar to soccer and football. Hey, even the ancient Chinese need to let loose between spear throwing.
Red Cliff Part 1 acts as a superlative first half! Tune in next week for "Part 2", and my thoughts on John Woo's epic as a whole.
I'm happy that I started this column. Ending my news report around the holidays was not the brightest idea. Immediately upon eliminating that from schedule, that free time was filled by many other joyous activities like family parties, wedding planning, and Christmas tree decorating. The beginning of this column might be a bit patchy from week to week until after the new year when I hope to be in a consistent flow every week.
Those fans of mine, all three of you, who have followed me from The Big Screen Bulletin to Nether Regions will be pleased to hear that I plan on writing a "Top 10 Pet Peeves" article, as well as a "Best/Worst of 2009" article, which will follow that. My tentative title is "Editor's Note." As most of my catching up with movies from 2009 is complete, I must kick my listening to music into high gear as I have loads of CDs that have yet to be inserted into my player. By the way, for updates on all the movies I am seeing that I have not written full reviews, you can consult my blog, which should soon be lighting 411 on fire with hits. View it by clicking here. I plan on adding other random thoughts on CDs, plays, and other topics that float into my head as well.
"The plural of Chad is Chad?"
--From the movie Recount