When I saw John Woo's Red Cliff (5 screens) a couple of months back, I could barely contain my enthusiasm. I thought it was a true return to form for Woo, who came from an exemplary career in Hong Kong to a rather spotty (if underrated) one in Hollywood. It managed to be a personal project for Woo, full of his own themes and touches, but also a mammoth epic of the kind that usually goes on to stun the world and win a dozen Oscars; it was the best such epic since Braveheart or Gladiator, but even better than those films. It was more modest and emotional, more poetic and intimate, faster and cleaner in its action sequences, but no less spectacular. It was apparently the most expensive movie ever produced in China, and also its biggest hit. I had visions of John Woo meeting Oscar for the first time.
But to date, in the US, it has earned a paltry $600,000, which is roughly one thousand times less than Avatar. It placed on a tiny handful of critics' ten best lists, and has barely made a ripple since. I'm sure people did not stay away because of the subtitles; after all, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon was a huge hit, and Red Cliff is every bit as good, every bit as crowd-pleasing. Perhaps the advertising and release pattern were a mistake. Perhaps it never opened wide enough when it still had some momentum. But I think the main problem was the plan of releasing a "U.S. cut," which ran 148 minutes, whereas the original cut ran 280 minutes. The length did not stop it from becoming a huge hit in China, but somehow, somebody decided that Americans could not take length and subtitles.
When I interviewed John Woo last fall, he said that the "U.S. cut" was part of the original plan, since the story of the battle of Red Cliff is already well known by every Chinese citizen, and virtually unknown in America. The U.S. cut leaves intact most of the action and battle scenes and cuts out subplots that would deepen some of the secondary characters. The relationship between the two leads -- strategist Kongming (Takeshi Kaneshiro) and viceroy Zhou Yu (Tony Leung Chiu Wai) -- is still there, the opposites coming together to fight a greater evil. And even the villain, Chancellor Cao Cao (Zhang Fengyi), seems a little deeper and more interesting than your standard bad guy.
When I saw the film a second time -- while guest-hosting a session of Talk Cinema -- I loved it just as much, but I started to notice where the holes might be. The audience seemed to notice too. However well-intentioned the "U.S. cut" plan might have been, and even if it was approved and supervised by Woo himself, the result is that the moviemakers underestimated the intelligence of the American audience. And even if they were right, even if they had a point, no one wants to be underestimated. This situation reminds me a lot of Sergio Leone's Once Upon a Time in America (1984), which was originally released in a truncated, bastardized edition before its full-length version became available. This major misstep earned it a bad reputation and prevented it from its well-deserved year-end accolades. It was years before it became perceived as the classic it really is.
I'm sad about this missed opportunity. It would have been amazing to see Red Cliff and John Woo among this year's Oscar nominees, but now we will have to wait until Woo's next costume battle epic, if ever there is one. But I'll sign off with a bit of good news. To make reparations, Magnolia Home Video has announced that the complete, uncut Chinese version will be released on DVD and Blu-Ray March 23. Let's hope this great, great film eventually finds an audience and grows to the stature it ought to have.