An epic telling of Chinese legend

  • By Robert Horton Herald Movie Critic
  • Tuesday, November 24, 2009 6:22pm
  • LifeGo-See-Do

It’s handy for a filmmaker when he can rely on the government to supply 10,000 soldiers as extras.

No wonder John Woo, whose Hollywood career has had its ups and downs over the past decade and a half, departed the U.S. for a while to make “Red Cliff,” a full-scale Chinese epic.

Mind you, the 10,000 extras don’t match the record. That probably belongs to Soviet director Sergei Bondarchuk’s vast 1967 adaptation of “War and Peace,” in which more than 100,000 people were supposedly pressed into service.

But still, 10,000 is nothing to sneeze at. That’s the way of this massively scaled movie: It’s a true epic, no corners cut, no stone left unturned or arrow left unquivered.

“Red Cliff” is based on a legend-shrouded episode from Chinese history, which — burnished by the huge literary epic “The Romance of the Three Kingdoms” — has entered the realm of national mythology.

At the story’s heart is one land-hungry kingdom ganging up on a couple of smaller kingdoms. A rapacious general (Zhang Fengyi, from “Farewell, My Concubine”) has led his emperor into war against their southern rivals, who must band together if they want to defeat the invader from the north.

Naturally, we’re rooting for the underdogs in this fight. Two marvelous characters lead the counter-attack: an elegant, shrewd viceroy (Tony Leung, the brilliant star of “In the Mood for Love” and “Lust, Caution”) and a cagey young strategist (Takeshi Kaneshiro, from “House of Flying Daggers”) who is almost supernaturally intuitive about issues like weather and terrain.

Much of the pleasure of the film — other than the fun of watching a giant-sized spectacle — comes from savoring the military strategies involved in the David vs. Goliath tactics. The movie deservedly takes time to unfold its big set pieces, including a fog-shrouded method for collecting the enemy’s arrows and a seaborne fire assault.

Woo is the director to stage all this fuss, and to trace the rivalries and bonds among the fighting men. Despite a cast-of-thousands feel, “Red Cliff” is straightforward in its storytelling.

This is despite the fact that a five-hour version was released in China (where it was a box-office smash). Woo reportedly always knew he’d release a shorter cut as well, and that might account for the fact that this 148-minute edition seems complete enough on its own.

Based on the evidence, the long version would probably be fun too. I’m sure John Woo still has movies to make in Hollywood, but if he’d like to stick with Chinese blockbusters, he clearly has the knack.

“Red Cliff”

A massive and highly impressive Chinese battle epic, with some well-staged spectacle and lucid character development. John Woo interrupts his Hollywood career to direct this Chinese production (it was a huge hit there in five-hour form). Woo is ably served by a handful of Asia’s best actors, including Tony Leung and Takeshi Kaneshiro. In Mandarin, with English subtitles.

Rated: R for violence

Showing: Neptune

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