Saturday, November 28, 2009

Film Review: Red Cliff

"Red Cliff"
*** 1\2 (out of ****)

There are moments when watching "Red Cliff" (2009) I felt I was in the presence of an epic, grand-scale master-piece. It has some of the best and most beautiful visuals I have seen all year. It has several amazing fighting sequences, probably the best I've seen this year as well. Yet, somehow "Red Cliff", a film which I greatly looked forward to seeing, managed to feel a bit like a let down to me.

The film was directed by John Woo. It is his first film in Chinese in more than a decade, his last was "Hard-Boiled" (1992), perhaps one of his most popular films. I must admit I've never really thought very highly of Mr. Woo. Back in the 90s, when he started making American Hollywood films, there was a time he was all the rage. Many Americans had never seen his ultra-violent, highly stylized action films, but he hit the mainstream in a big way with blockbusters like "Face/Off" (1997), "Broken Arrow" (1996) and "Mission:Impossible II" (2000). And it is these films which I have seen by Mr. Woo.

At the time when "M:I 2" was released I wrote about it on and said I don't find Mr. Woo to be a great director. I feel he is more of a choreographer, who can set-up some nice action sequences, stealing or borrowing, if you prefer, the old Sam Peckinpah device of slow motion violence. But his films usually leave me cold. And that is the major problem, in fact it is the only one, I have with "Red Cliff".

In some regards "Red Cliff" belongs in a class with the work of Zhang Yimou and his martial art films such as "Hero" (2003), "House of Flying Daggers" (2004) and the vastly underrated "The Curse of the Golden Flower" (2006) as well as Chen Kaige's "The Emperor & the Assassin" (1999) and the film which seemed to have opened Americans' eyes to this genre, Ang Lee's "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" (2000). Each one of those movies I would argue is a masterpiece. Nearly every single one of them made my "Top Ten" list in their respected years. But Mr. Woo doesn't have their sensitivity. Mr. Woo seems to feel the center of his story is the action sequences, I feel it should have been the characters. I left the theatre wanting to know more about these characters. I never felt I really knew who they are. In the other films I have mentioned the stories where also about historical events, "Red Cliff" is about the Three Kingdoms, but they focused on the people and drama. Many people, for instance, went on and on about the action sequences in Yimou's "House of Flying Daggers", but, for me, it was the relationship between the characters which made the film work. The drama is what kept me interested. The fighting scenes were an added bonus.

In "Red Cliff" the best scenes for me where the non-fighting ones. I enjoyed the scenes where the characters speak and plan out strategies or some of the more tender moments between the warriors and their wives. These scenes help us attempt to understand who these men are. It makes the film richer if it paints a portrait of the characters and why we should follow their story.

Of course, I suppose not all of this is Mr. Woo's fault. I should inform readers that in China "Red Cliff" was originally a five hour epic. It has been divided into two parts. In America we have been given a condensed version which combines these two parts into a 2.5 hour film. Of course this is not fair to Mr. Woo and not fair to us. We deserve to see Mr. Woo's vision as he intended audiences to see it. If the film was truly good I don't think audiences would mind sitting through it. I personally enjoy Ingmar Bergman's "Fanny & Alexander" (1983) which also runs five hours (though originally released in a three hour version) or his "Scenes From A Marriage" (1974) and what about the more recent "Best of Youth" (2005)? These movies are generally considered masterpieces by those that have seen them. Does the running time scare off some viewers? I'm sure it does. But these films probably wouldn't appeal to those people in the first place. The U.S. distributors have done us a great dis-service. All one can hope for is a proper DVD release when we can finally see Mr. Woo's film as he envisioned.

As the film stands now it follows Prime Minister Cao Cao (Zhang Fengyi). A diabolical, ego-maniac, who has more control than the Emperor. Cao Cao has persuaded the Emperor into allowing him to lead a army against Zhou Yu (Tong Leung) and Liu Bei (Yong You), whom he has labeled as "rebels". Cao Cao wants to reach the Red Cliff with his army which vastly outnumbers Yu and Bei.

In some ways "Red Cliff" is like watching a chess game. These two men, Cao and Yu, are so skilled at the art of war that they can actually predict what their opponents next move will be. Rarely have I seen a movie so intelligent. These characters actually have brains and use them. You get the feeling the plot does not dictate them but rather they dictate the plot.

The best moments in the film deal with Yu and his wife, Xiao Qiao (Chiling Lin). She has studied the art of tea. We see a couple in love and with an equal understanding. They both have a voice and express their feelings. The movie tries to draw a link between the preparation of making art and the battle scenes. Both involve discipline and an understanding of nature and the elements.

Still there aren't enough of these moments in this U.S. version. The movie nearly wore me out with all the sword fighting sequences. I actually forgot why these people are fighting in the first place. The movie throws a lot of characters at us and once in a while I forgot who was who. This reminded me of a negative review Roger Ebert wrote for Chen Kaige's "Temptress Moon" (1997). Ebert observed "Temptress Moon" was a "hard movie to follow" because of all the characters and continued to write the movie was "so hard, that at some point you may be tempted to abandon the effort and simply enjoy the elegant visuals." Ebert, like many critics and some of the public refuse to give Kaige his due credit and refuse to acknowledge he has made anything worth while since "Farewell My Concubine" (1993). By the way, both films are masterpieces and you should see them.

However back to "Red Cliff", I almost felt the same way watching "Red Cliff" as Ebert did watching "Moon". It's not so much that the film is hard to follow, but, rather, is doesn't seem to be doing enough. As I have said before, in this U.S. version the main emphasis is the fighting. That is the primary point of focus.

Still should audiences even bother with this condensed version? I suppose so. The visuals are breathtaking and the action sequences are impressive. It may be the most pleasure I've had watching a Woo film. And because it has been such a pathetic, worthless year for movies, it does stand as one of the better ones I have seen this year. I'd love to see what Woo originally intended but until that time, whether we like it or not, this version will have to do.