This will probably provoke the ire of action film fans everywhere, but I have to get this off my chest: I’ve never been a fan of John Woo.
Yes, the same John Woo credited for ushering a new age of action in both Asia and Hollywood; the John Woo who brought Hong Kong cinema to the forefront of world attention with his signature brand of stylized and ultra-violent action.
Yet for all his technical innovations, operatic violence and dizzying spectacles, I always remained unmoved, even by his best films.
After five years in hiatus, Woo returned to his native soil with the $80 million historical epic blockbuster “Red Cliff, China’s highest grossing film of all time. Technically, the film is utterly impressive: breathtaking action sequences, incredibly lavish sets, lush cinematography and commendable special effects. Yet, once again, I was quite impassive to the experience in general, and the reasons are clear: characterization is fairly thin, the story has little relevance to the present and Woo’s handling of the drama remains as shallow as ever.
John Woo emerged in the mid-70s as part of Hong Kong’s New Wave directors that included Jackie Chan and Hark Tsui. For the most part of the 60s, Hong Kong was known for its martial arts and Kung-Fu films. As the genre began to die causing several companies to fold, great Taiwanese producer Raymond Chow went to establish in the early 70s Golden Harvest, the legendary company that introduced Bruce Lee to the world.
The success of Golden Harvest opened Hong Kong cinema to the west. The special-effects hardware imported from the west aided the New Wave filmmakers to create a new style of flamboyant visuals and ingenious stunts. Their early works were rooted in classic Hollywood crime movies. Subsequent works returned to the Kung-Fu film conventions, dressed up in modern clothes via urban settings.
Chan’s films showed a strong inclination towards comedy while Hark was primary taken with fantasy. Woo, on the other hand, embraced the Kung-Fu themes of honor and male bonding, and it’s those themes that informed his cohesive body work before he was discovered by Hollywood.
A trio of films released in late 80s and early 90s established Woo as one of the most successful and influential Asian directors of his generation: “A Better Tomorrow (1987), “The Killer (1989) and “Hard Boiled (1992). At that point, Woo’s imprint was spread everywhere. Filmmakers the world over – from Wong Kar-Wai and Quentin Tarantino to Egyptian directors Tarek El-Eryan and Mohammed El-Naggar – were entranced by his style. Some, like El-Eryan, made an entire career out of ripping him off. Like him or not, Woo opened new possibilities for action that eschewed direct thrills for something grander, more poetic. And herein lies my problem with him.
I’ve always admired Woo’s aesthetics and I do understand why his films are considered groundbreaking. But, apart from 1997’s “Face/Off, none of his films truly engaged me. His notions of brotherhood and friendship never amounted to anything more than kitsch. His storylines were overdramatic while the homoerotic vibe that dominated his films was too blatant, bordering on parody.
The vast majority of Woo’s films left me cringing in embarrassment, trying hard to like them but ending up with an unshakable feeling of indifference.
“Red Cliff is Woo’s best film since “Face/Off and it’s one of the very few pictures of his that I did enjoy.
Set in the year 208 AD near the end of the Han dynasty, the film chronicles the events leading to Red Cliff, the most famous battle in Chinese history as depicted in the 700-year-old classic Chinese novel “Romance of the Three Kingdoms.
Zhang Fengyi plays Cao Cao, the sharp-witted, ambitious and blood-thirsty Prime Minister. Having conquered the North part of China, Cao Cao, under the pretense of wanting to unite all of China, launches a new campaign to overtake the Xu kingdom of the west.
After enduring a crushing defeat by Cao Cao’s army, Xu ruler Liu Bei (You Yong) realizes that his only hope to save his kingdom is to form an alliance with rival warlord Sun Quan (Chang Chen), ruler of the Wu kingdom. Liu Bei dispatches his wise military advisor Zhuge Liang (Takeshi Kaneshiro, from “House of Flying Daggers ) to seal the deal with the Wu Viceroy Zhou Yu (Asian screen icon Tony Leung Chiu Wai).
There’s a whole host of other characters, including Sun Quan’s fearless tomboyish sister, Wei Zhao (Sun Shangxiang), who manages to infiltrate the enemy lines and Zhou Yu’s faithful wife Xiao Qiao (gorgeous Taiwanese model Chiling Lin) whom Cao Cao covets.
The scope of Woo’s vision reaches a new high with “Red Cliff, his first Asian film since “Hard Boiled. Stuffed with strikingly choreographed hand-to-hand combat, countless cunning strategies, imposing explosions, dazzling customs and bracing landscapes, “Red Cliff is big, loud and brash.
All of Woo’s hallmarks are in full display in here. The slow-mo action sequences, the occasional fast zooms, the swirling tracking shots, the freeze frames and his ubiquitous white dove. The latter is seen at the end of part one tearing up the sky to show the ground operations of Cao Cao’s camp in a long, elaborate sequence that is both cheesy and oddly magnificent.
For all its sheer grandiosity and excess, “Red Cliff could be Woo’s most restrained film in a long time. The action sequences are far from realistic; men still glide in space while his infamous flying bullets have been replaced by razor-sharp arrows that catch fire along with a host of supplementary arsenal that incorporates bows and long spears.
For its deviation from gravity and laws of nature, “Red Cliff is mostly grounded in reality; a refreshing change for a Woo film.
The real attraction of the film is the battle of wits between the two enemies that result in fantastic, highly entertaining tactics. Chief among them are an advancing tortoise formation, a ship full of large straw blocks that steals the enemy’s arrow ammunition and the terrific naval battle at the end of the film.
The drama, on the other hand, is tediously flat. Woo’s quintessential themes of male camaraderie, sacrifice and courage are front in center in “Red Cliff. But there’s no tangible tension, mainly because of how one-dimensional the characters are. What we get instead are tacky scenes between Zhuge Liang and Zhou Yu that see them expressing admiration for each other’s talents and playing sweet music on ancient Chinese instruments.
The homoerotic ambiance is ever-present, but it feels so tired, adding nothing substantial to the drama as the relationship between the two heroes, and the other characters, remains fundamentally stagnant.
Subtlety has never been Woo’s game, and “Red Cliff is no exception. I enjoyed the mood of the film, savored the chivalry, nobility and valor of that time and was thoroughly entertained by the action and sumptuous production. But I left the film wanting more drama.
Woo’s action works so well when the audience invest heavily in the drama. When they fail to do so, the impact falls dramatically. I personally didn’t, and felt remote from the characters for nearly the entire duration of the film. The images that left a lasting impression on me are of burning ships, ravaging battles and cool swordfights. But no human face registered with me.