Size Does Matter

11/18/2009 4:00 AM |

Red Cliff
Directed by John Woo

Since the turn of the millennium, filmmaking in mainland China has reached international audiences as a schizoid caricature. While the Western film festival circuit has turned a handful of the country’s young, socially conscious auteurs into art-cinema heroes, the most famous of the old-guard directors have set their sights on bigger budgets and pan-Asian glamour. It’s only appropriate, then, that John Woo should deliver the final entry in this decade’s string of Chinese blockbusters. As the only mainland-born director to experience success in Hollywood, Woo has chosen to embrace his birthplace at a time when its commercial cinema is swallowing up the Hong Kong industry in which he built his reputation, and also attempting to reinvent itself as the equal to American gigantism. His career-long commitment to the action film may deny him the pedigree of a Zhang Yimou (Hero) or Chen Kaige (The Promise), but Red Cliff is determined to beat their artier efforts in both scale and price tag.

Of course, whether in its voluminous classical literature or in that touchy subject of sovereignty, size has always mattered to China’s self-image. This $80 million epic—which is being touted as the most expensive Chinese-funded production to date, despite drawing investors from all across Asia—streamlines the classic 14th century novel Romance of the Three Kingdoms, a text of imposing narrative complexity that has nevertheless maintained its central place in national mythology and pop culture. Set in 208 A.D., the film charges through its historically based fantasy of the forefathers’ military might, valorizing warlords in the West and South of China as they defend themselves against the corrupt Han Dynasty ruler Cao Cao (Zhang Fengyi). What emerges is, at its most basic level, yet another embodiment of Woo’s cherished moral code of brotherhood, yiqi, which finds its most memorable expression here when two officials played by Tony Leung and Takeshi Kaneshiro bond over a virtuosic duet on Chinese dulcimers. But moments of tenderness like this are soon drowned out in a cacophony of bells and whistles.

Under Woo’s CGI-empowered gaze, each shot practically quivers with delight at what money can buy. The insular, soundstage-bound worlds of previous TV adaptations are replaced with a rugged terrain that knows no borders. Majestic landscapes become mere backdrops for the most elaborately choreographed violence of the director’s career, some of which revolves around mass formations worthy of Busby Berkeley. But in the end the film’s extravagance is reined in by the constraints of its U.S. incarnation. The original, two-part cut that broke box-office records in China last year has been sliced in half to spare Western audiences its more culturally specific content, and an English-language voiceover tacked onto the beginning holds our hand as we wade into the shallow end of an exotic history. A cast comprised of the most gifted Chinese leading men is sacrificed to a soulless, breakneck pace, which refuses to climax no matter how many explosions Woo drops into it. If pan-Chinese cinema wants to reassert its knack for delectable pop confections, it needs to give up the brain-deadening pursuit of out-blinging Ridley Scott and Wolfgang Petersen.

Opens November 20