I just watched John Woo's uncut, five-hour Red Cliff (billed as the "original international version") on Blu-Ray, and I'm declaring it a masterpiece. It's the kind of rousing epic that easily compares with Ben-Hur, Gladiator and Braveheart, and even surpasses them. It's huge and spectacular and dazzling, but still grounded in human characters and emotions. Best of all, it's a personal work from a filmmaker with specific themes and obsessions, and he manages to fit his own unique vision into this sweeping scope.
It was the highest grossing movie in Chinese history, and yet it hasn't even cracked three-quarters of a million dollars in ticket sales here in the United States. (For every one person that saw Red Cliff, more than 1000 people saw Avatar.) The explanation for this is simple; the United States received an edited version of the film that ran less than 2-1/2 hours. It only makes sense that as soon as this information came out, no one wanted to buy a ticket or invest any time in half a movie. Since the film didn't make any money, it never broke out of its limited release pattern and it never opened anywhere but in the big cities.
I'm not sure who in China or America decided to release this shorter version; John Woo said that it was always part of the plan, but also that he hated cutting up his movie. The American version has an English-language narrator, and freeze-frames the film to introduce all the characters. It's true that most Chinese citizens already know the story of Red Cliff and that most Americans don't, but this shorter cut basically assumes that Americans are idiots and unable to follow a long story with lots of characters (didn't anyone consider The Lord of the Rings)? I introduced a special screening of the film last fall, and though the short version is full of great stuff, there was a sense of dissatisfaction from the audience. They wanted the whole thing.
Red Cliff is good enough and enough of an audience-pleaser that it will eventually catch on via its full-length release on DVD and Blu-Ray, much like Sergio Leone's Once Upon a Time in America did on VHS. (That movie was released in an incomprehensible, edited version in theaters in 1984, and then in its full version on video.) But the real shame is that, had the full-length version been released in theaters, it would have thrown some much-deserved respect back to master Woo. It might even have resulted in an Oscar nomination for Best Director.
At one time, Woo was a king. He entered the movie business in the late 1960s after a shy, religious childhood spent hanging out in movie theaters, watching Japanese, French and American classics. He became a director in the early 1970s and turned out a string of fairly accomplished action films, including Last Hurrah for Chivalry (1979), which is widely available on video in the United States. However, in 1986, he blew the film industry wide open with his hit film A Better Tomorrow, starring Chow Yun-fat, Leslie Cheung and the veteran star Ti Lung. Along with Tsui Hark's Peking Opera Blues, the film scored huge numbers and, like Star Wars in America, changed everything.
A Better Tomorrow tells the fairly typical story of two brothers: one is a criminal (Ti Lung) and the other wants to become a cop (Leslie Cheung). (Chow Yun-fat, who stole the movie, plays the criminal's flashy sidekick.) Woo tells it with huge, operatic strokes, with intense, outsize emotions to match his famous, slo-mo action sequences. Woo immediately directed a sequel, A Better Tomorrow II (1987), in which Chow was cast to play the twin brother of the character from the first movie. More sequels followed, but Woo moved on.
His masterpiece The Killer came next and it cemented all of Woo's themes in one movie. In it, a contract killer, Ah Jong (Chow Yun-fat), accidentally blinds a woman (Sally Yeh) during a shootout with the flash of his gun. He wants to retire, but agrees to one more hit to raise money for an operation for the girl. A cop (Danny Lee) is on his trail, but soon realizes that the greater evil are the Triad gangsters who are after Ah Jong, and the two rivals team up for an amazing showdown in a church. This male bonding, along with the symbolic images of doves and candles, and the striking action sequences became Woo's trademarks.
His next masterpiece was a powerful Vietnam War film, Bullet in the Head, which isn't as well known as the Chow Yun-fat cop movies (it's still difficult to find the full-length, 136-minute cut in this country). He followed it with a lightweight caper movie, the delightful, almost musical Once a Thief (1991), and then his final Hong Kong movie, Hard-Boiled (1992), an action movie to end all action movies, with Chow Yun-fat and Tony Leung as the reluctant partners. Around this time, Hong Kong cinema started to trickle into the United States in small doses, mostly to cult fans who passed the word between each other, and also thanks to Quentin Tarantino, who had garnered a small following with his first film, Reservoir Dogs. There was a serious buzz in the air.
At the same time, people were speculating what would happen in the upcoming 1997 handover of Hong Kong from British control, back to Communist Chinese control. Would filmmakers retain the same kind of creative freedom, or would censorship reign? Many filmmakers succumbed to the siren song of Hollywood, and Woo was the first to go; he had been a fan of American films such as The Wild Bunch and Mean Streets. When he arrived, his first assignment was a brain-dead Jean-Claude Van Damme movie called Hard Target (1993). It was amazing to watch, full of his fluid camera movements and smooth, clear action, but the movie was edited for violent content (some bootlegs exist of the director's cut, and fans claim that it's superior), and it was frankly hard to reconcile the greatness of the Hong Kong movement with a dumb American movie like this.
But it was a hit and Woo was allowed to move up to the A-list, where he belonged. (Why wasn't he treated as royalty as soon as he arrived?) Unfortunately, Broken Arrow (1996) featured an equally dumb screenplay, and this time Woo didn't seem to be on his game; at the time it occurred to me that it looked more like a Woo imitator than the real thing. The most interesting factor was the sudden, surprise appearance of Woo's first great female character, park ranger Terry Carmichael (Samantha Mathis), who -- rather than cowering, screaming or getting kidnapped -- proceeds to join the hero in the ass-kicking.
Face/Off (1997) struck me as another masterpiece, with some strong material perfectly suited to the director's touch, as well as another complex bonding between the two male leads. (Not to mention two mesmerizing performances by John Travolta and Nicolas Cage.) Several major critics selected it as one of the year's ten best films, and it was the third hit in a row for Woo. Mission: Impossible II (2000) was his biggest US hit yet, and I loved the look of the film; next to the popular shaky-cam stuff of the time, it was easily the best action movie of the summer. But viewers laughed at Woo's operatic storytelling and his continued use of his favorite themes (i.e. "What? Doves again?").
From there, Woo hit a string of bad luck. Windtalkers (2002) was clearly a personal project, but it was poorly-written -- it was a story about Navajo code-talkers of WWII that focused on white characters -- and released in a shorter version than Woo had intended. (His director's cut on DVD is measurably better, though it still suffers from core flaws.) Paycheck (2003) was a solid, fun adaptation of a Philip K. Dick story, but it had the misfortune to star Ben Affleck just as he was becoming a favorite media whipping boy (a few months after the horrible flop Gigli).
And that was about it for a while. Something seemed to be in the air. The people who had been excited about Woo in the early 1990s no longer had any patience for him. True blue fans received quiet ridicule for their unfounded dedication to him. I had the good fortune to meet and interview Mr. Woo three times, and I found him a very gentle soul; I formed the impression that he was perhaps too kind for a real career in Hollywood. (As proven by his continuing working relationships, he makes friends and keeps them.) He didn't seem to have it in him to backstab or lie or inflate his resume. He couldn't reassure his fans that he still had all the right stuff.
Which was why Red Cliff was so crucial. It had "comeback" written all over it, but the bungled, misguided release pattern messed it all up. Woo is clearly recharged in this movie. All of his usual trademarks are here, but with a new sense of purpose. The relationship between strategist Zhuge Liang (Takeshi Kaneshiro) and viceroy Zhou Yu (Tony Leung, re-teaming with Woo for the first time since Hard-Boiled) -- each representing opposing armies -- is as touching as anything Woo has done. Some of their quiet moments together (in the short version as well as in the long version) speak volumes about the male soul without ever getting touchy-feely.
And yes, this movie has a dove -- just one -- used in the most expensive visual effects sequence in Chinese history. The camera tracks after the dove as its flies from the heroes' camp at Red Cliff to the villains' camp across the river, connecting the two in a physical way. Then there's the action, and Woo's footage is still the best in the business, anywhere in the world. He manages to capture some exciting moments of martial arts mastery one-on-one, as well as the larger picture, the very complex, but effortlessly demonstrated, military tactics. He even continues his tradition of strong female characters with the feisty Princess Sun (Zhao Wei), who resists an arranged marriage to sneak behind enemy lines and spy for the good guys.
I know the idea of a five-hour Chinese movie sounds daunting and depressing, but believe me, Red Cliff is the very definition of the word "stirring" and worth every second. If lightning can strike twice, then audiences will reach out for the uncut, international Red Cliff and re-claim Woo as a master filmmaker. Forget all the Hollywood jobs for hire and see him as the skilled technical artist behind those movies. See him as the passionate, kind, committed filmmaker who sticks to his guns. And then remember why John Woo is one of the directors we love.