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July 23, 2009

Red Cliff II

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Chi bi xia: Jue zhan tian xia
John Woo - 2009
Zoke Culture Region 0 DVD

How often do you watch a movie, and while the final credits are rolling, think to yourself, "I can't wait to see this movie again."?

What struck me most about Red Cliff II is John Woo's humanity. The second film depicts the battle with showers of arrows, towering conflagrations, thundering explosions and not a little blood. Yet Woo shows the human toll as well, not simply the scores of dead bodies covering the ground, which in itself is effective, but also how it may effect two people who have developed affection for each other.

The film begins with soldiers playing a game similar to soccer, kicking a ball across the field. Disguised as a male soldier, Vicki Zhao Wei is on the sidelines, butting her head against the ball, catching the attention of the leading player. The sports hero, Suchai, is suddenly made a battalion commander by Prime Minister Cao, yet he is more interested in relaxing with his newfound friend rather than being a soldier. The trope of having a woman disguised as a man is familiar, yet Woo is able to convey a purity in the childlike friendship between the simple minded young man and the woman, who is acting as a spy, and is of noble birth.

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At the same time as northern army Cao's soldiers are kicking the ball around, the southern leader, Zhou Yu is showing his prowess, tossing arrows from a distance, into a pot. Unlike the others who continually miss the small hole, Zhou Yu hit the target every time, explaining his success to concentration. While the actual battle of Red Cliff is what Woo's film is building up to, what makes his film more than an action spectacle is the use of motifs involving strategy and art. Part of the film involves a discussion on "The Art of War", with an emphasis on art, be it realized as poetry, calligraphy or a tea ceremony. Cao discovers that a large number of his soldiers have died from typhoid, and rather than bury or cremate them, has them floated to Zhou Yu's enemy camp. The tactic is to both physically and psychological undermine his foes. In another scene of cross-cutting, we see Cao reciting a poem about the transience of life, while Zhou Yu's soldiers cremate the dead soldiers on large pyres. For John Woo, the story is not simply one about a vastly larger army in battle with a smaller opposing force, but of the recognition of other's strengths and weaknesses, as well acknowledgment of one's own vulnerability.

Seeing the completed Red Cliff makes me concerned about the "international" version, condensed to about half of the original two films, that is to be playing U.S. theaters, what it will look like, although advance word has been favorable. The original films are said to be scheduled for U.S. DVD release by Magnolia Films, but this is yet to be seen. It is only at the conclusion that so much that might seem extraneous makes sense to the totality of Woo's vision. One wonderful scene is of Tony Leung Chiu Wai performing a solo dance with a sword, a very balletic moment. Another moment to savor is when Zhang Fengyi, as Cao Cao, talks about missing his young son. Woo's clearly on the the side of Zhou Yu and his allies, but the scene with Zhang allows some sympathy for the enemy. Another favorite scene is of Takeshi Kaneshiro playing a trick on Cao's soldiers, sitting in a small boat, drinking, while arrows whiz around him. One might argue that it is the relationships between characters, rather than the actual battle, that is at the heart of Red Cliff II.

Near the end of the battle are the hallmarks of a classic John Woo film. Leung and Zhang are caught in a "Mexican standoff", with swords instead of guns. There is a last second, breath taking rescue. To criticize John Woo for repeating certain elements from film to film would be like complaining about the use of "Shall We Gather at the River" in a John Ford film. I don't feel like I am exaggerating when I say that the Red Cliff films are John Woo's greatest films to date. Rather than thinking Woo retreated from Hollywood, one could consider that past decade as one allowing Woo training on making a large scale, large budget epic. The "thinking person's epic" did not disappear with Anthony Mann or Stanley Kubrick but is alive and well in China.

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Red Cliff II is available from HK Flix.

Posted by peter at July 23, 2009 12:07 AM