John Woo’s The Killer introduced me to the wider world of hong kong movies when I was only eleven years old, so I love John Woo and always want to give him the benefit of the doubt, even after movies like Paycheck, which takes the not-uncontested title for the worst cinematic butchering of Phillip K. Dick ever. Like most of us who write about Hong Kong movies on the internet, my education in Hong Kong films began with Tai Seng VHS tapes, which housed films that differed from Hollywood in ways both inexpressible and, unfortunately, now wholly familiar to general audiences. Lots of younger fans (many my own age) watch movies like The Bride with White Hair or Dragon Inn – movies which blew my mind when I saw them at fifteen – and, if they don’t quietly wonder over all the fuss they’ve read or heard, they assume that a whole host of pretentious, deluded old-timers have convinced themselves of metaphorical alchemy. Our gold seems, “for all intensive purposes,” like shit to them.
The appreciation of wild visual creativity in older Hong Kong movies fast evaporated in a climate where so many of their visual idioms appear even in bad movies, and without the context in which most of us watched them, the ambivalence ought to be understandable. I say this because if I had seen Red Cliff back when I was eleven-years-old, it would probably be my favorite movie ever. It has outrageous violence, manly bonding, a little bit of sex, epic declamations of intents to conquer and subjugate or to defend against conquer and subjugation. Of course, these things are also true about Zach Snyder’s 300. A lot of movie goers express ambivalence (if not outright animosity) for 300 too, but Snyder’s film would have been wholly different if made in 2000 rather than 2006, before The Matrix and Kill Bill and a host of imitators exerted a largely unstated influence on the way that Hollywood studios approach action.
Woo is a victim of his own good fortune. Of all the Hong Kong film makers who went to the States before the handover, Woo found the most success. He made his own brand of action accessible to Western audiences just before they became inundated by wire work, balletic martial arts, and colorful (albeit digitally affected) cinematographic experimentation. In the meantime, genre films in Hong Kong underwent their own transformation, in part due to ailing local industry and in (greater) part due to integration with mainland China. Adaptations of Jin Yong and Gu Long novels, with their flying swordsmen and romantic intrigues, migrated almost exclusively to television while film makers courted international favor with historical spectacles in the wake of the Academy Award nomination for Zhang Yimou’s Hero.
Into this giant mess, Woo decided to make his return. Red Cliff, based on one of the most infamous military upsets in Chinese history and literature, is yet another cast-of-thousands historical epic with an all-star cast of respected thespians and one unusually pretty woman, a two-part exercise in bloody violence, male bonding that verges on homo-eroticism, and self-indulgent allusions to history and the classic novel, Romance of the Three Kingdoms.
In a lot of ways, this movie is more John Woo than any of his other movies, to the point where it looks like a Chang Cheh movie on a budget that the late godfather of Hong Kong cinema never got to play with. Zooms, telephoto close ups and heroic imagery flow through the movie even faster than the fake blood in its bloody battle scenes, and the numerous scenes in which two hardened warriors gaze at each other with expressions of admiration as they train troops, practice martial arts and play music stop just before the seemingly inevitable physical affection. The action, its wire effects painfully obvious and its choreography entirely unreal, looks not terribly unlike one of those Hong Kong movies that Hong Kong doesn’t really make anymore.
Red Cliff divided people, not only on the basis of its merits but on its portrayal of the characters from the Three Kingdoms. Zhang Fei, historically, was a capable government administrator who enjoyed wine and composed highly-regarded calligraphy. In Luo Guangzhong’s novel, he is an impulsive drunkard. Red Cliff tries to marry the two in a scene where the normally loquacious Zhang sits quietly and writes calligraphy, which Zhou Yu, meeting him for the first time, praises. Zhang Fei gets really pissed at the interruption and yells at him. This scene is meant as comedy, but while watching it with an almost entirely Chinese audience, it elicited groans and head shaking disapproval. Equally questionable is the treatment of Cao Cao, who conducts a full-scale invasion of Sun territory over Zhou Yu’s wife, Xiao Qiao. This hardly fits the historical image of the highly ambitious and educated Cao or the literary image of the overweeningly prideful usurper.
I, of course, would not have known that even a decade ago, when my only knowledge of the Three Kingdoms came from playing Dynasty Warriors 2 with my friends. Contentious issues of movie-action trends and historical accuracy aside, the real meat of the movie is Woo's depiction of warrior-bonding, battle tactics and massive action scenes. And in all honesty, Red Cliff is nothing more or less than John Woo making an old-fashioned historical epic in his very particular style. Which is to say that it is cheesy, unsubtle and, from a certain perspective, lots of fun.
And that, ultimately, is what makes Red Cliff difficult to rate. To those who came to these kinds of movies after Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Hero, it feels all too familiar, while older fans who often say that they want a return to form actually want a return to that feeling of otherness that Hollywood stole by co-opting so much from foreign sources and that the circumstances surrounding China and Hong Kong have ultimately run into the ground. It is the search for that otherness, for that strange creativity, for that transother cinematographic experience that lead many in the mid-2000’s to label South Korea the “new Hong Kong” and to further explore Asian film in its myriad of genres and origins.
I like Red Cliff. Take that for whatever it is worth, which probably isn’t too much. It appeals to that kid in me that likes to see Guan Yu running on a phalanx of shields, slicing riders off their horses while a make-shift military compound burns in the distance. For many people, that sort of thing isn't enough any more.