Sunday, July 04, 2010

NYAFF ‘10: Red Cliff (Uncut)

It was like the Siege of Troy without the big wooden horse. Well-known to Chinese audiences from the Fourteenth Century novel, The Romance of the Three Kingdoms, the Battle of Red Cliff offered John Woo a huge, sprawling canvas for his first Asian produced film since answering Hollywood’s call in the early 1990’s. Featuring sweeping battle scenes, courtly intrigue, and yes, plenty of doves, Woo applied his signature action style to the 208 AD campaign in Red Cliff (trailer here), but unfortunately the version released in American was oddly abridged, losing some of its better scenes. However, the full international cut screens today as part of the New York Asian Film Festival.

In the waning days of the Han Dynasty, Prime Minister Cao Cao bullies the weak young Emperor into declaring war against Liu Bei’s peaceful Xu kingdom in the west and Sun Quan’s prosperous Wu kingdom to the South. Following a costly defeat, Liu’s strategist Zhuge Liang forges an uneasy alliance with Sun Quan by appealing to his wise Viceroy Zhou Yu, who has his own reasons for battling Cao Cao. His wife Xiao Qiao is Red Cliff’s Helen of Troy, whose beauty has haunted Cao Cao for years.

While the CGI can be a bit conspicuous at times, Woo invests the action with grit and vigor, out Bravehearting Braveheart. He stages several enormously ambitious full-scale battles worthy of Cecil B. DeMille, complete with naval skirmishes, charging cavalry, generous use of firebombs, and blizzards of arrows. Yet it is the gravity defying martial arts fight choreography that really delivers the goods.

As Zhou Yu, Tony Leung, the star of Woo’s original breakout hit Hard Boiled, brings the right heroic gravitas to credibly serve as the mature action lead, without being overshadowed by the considerable spectacle constantly enveloping him. Leung is nicely counterbalanced by Takeshi Kaneshiro as the mystical Zhuge (who turns out to be a walking second century Farmer’s Almanac). Chiling Lin also is quite effective as the beautiful Xiao Qiao, projecting a sense of strength and compassion that humanizes a story largely dominated by warfare.

Not surprisingly, Red Cliff is best appreciated in its intended, unexpurgated form. Inexplicably, the character of Sun Shangxiang suffered the most from the American abridgment. An early feminist warrior, she is a strong secondary protagonist, played with verve and charisma by Zhao Wei. Indeed, it is a shame to have lost her scenes infiltrating Cao Cao’s encampment, where she befriends the guileless soldier Pit, thereby discovering the human face of the opposing troops they will soon face.

Even in the American cut, Red Cliff is a meticulously produced historical action epic that compares highly favorably with most any recent martial arts opus. Still basically all about fighting, the uncut Cliff is more judicious in its vision of war, but remains a sheer blast to watch. Unquestionably though, the uncut version is preferred and NYAFF offers an opportunity to see it on the big screen of the Walter Reade Theater tonight (7/4), as a kind of fireworks for the Fourth of July.