John Woo's latest film(s), the Chinese historical battle epic Red Cliff, has essentially conquered the Asian box office, becoming the highest-grossing domestic film in mainland China and the biggest Chinese hit in most other nations in the region. Much like Kill Bill, Red Cliff actually exists as two films, both running slightly over two hours. But the film's U.S. distributor, Magnet (the genre imprint of Magnolia), has hedged its bets big time—editing the whole thing into one 148-minute mash-up with the proviso that both films may be released separately (to VOD, possibly theatrical) based on the initial response to the U.S. edit. All of this is important to know going in, because the first 15 minutes of Red Cliff U.S.A. are maddeningly inept: a stentorian English-language voiceover fills in basically two-thirds of the plot from Red Cliff 1, with a who's-who editing jumble that scans like a lousy TV pilot.
But hang with it. Soon enough, Woo's mastery of popular film technique and intelligent, economical storytelling clicks in like a stylus hitting its groove. (And, for the curious, DVDs of both full-length films can be purchased online.) The plot of Red Cliff, even in this truncated form, is impossible to lose track of—even though it's true that Western audiences won't be as familiar with the titular national epic as Woo understands his Chinese viewers to be. Here's the basic breakdown. During the 3rd century, Northern warlord Cao Cao (Zhang Fengyi) has subdued nearly all of China. There are two Southern holdouts whom he means to isolate and crush. One, Liu Bei (You Yong), has a record of defeats to rival William Jennings Bryan. The other, young upstart Sun Quan (Chang Chen), has a stronghold in the Southlands but has yet to prove his mettle. From there, the fight is on.
Woo, a master student of everything Kurosawa learned from John Ford and Howard Hawks, wisely invests the bulk of his physical and emotional action not in the emperors or generals but those directly beneath or adjacent to them. Asian superstars Tony Leung and Takeshi Kaneshiro are Red Cliff's true leads as, respectively, Zhao Yu, viceroy and chief commander to Sun Quan, and Zhuge Liang, Liu Bei's chief advisor—who, following the alliance between the two Southlands forces, begins to shift allegiance from the man to the cause. The title of both film and source epic refers to Zhao Yu's encampment, the site where the alliance was forged, and where all parties make their final stand.
Honor and duty, rather than conventional character arcs, are the engines that drive Red Cliff, which is understandable given the massive canvas upon which Woo is painting. Almost every close-up is bookended by an extreme long shot depicting the antlike geometry of armies moving in formation, and when Woo begins operating at his combat-ballet best—Tony Leung's spearfight at the 45-minute mark, for example, followed by two-fisted sword action that immediately recalls Woo's Hard Boiled / Better Tomorrow heyday—the rush of watching enemy blood spurt is undeniable, even if we suddenly remember that Cao Cao's faceless troops are comprised of conquered conscripts. Whatever emotional remoteness plagues the rest of Red Cliff has less to do with Woo than with the clumsy 2-in-1 edit job. One key example: One minute Sun Quan's badass sister Sun Shangxiang (Zhao Wei) is being laughed off by the guys, told that war isn't for girls. Ten minutes later, she's leading a cavalry. Did you miss something? No. The distributor did.