Monday, July 19, 2010

John Woo's Red Cliff- The full two part five hour version

This week I'm doing films that played this years New York Asian Film Festival. I'm beginning the week by continuing with the theme of this past weekend, namely two films released separately but really should be seen together since they form one bigger film greater film together.

First up is John Woo's Red Cliff, which was released in theaters at the end of last year, but in a severely cut down single film. The NYAFF did a special marathon screening during the Fourth of July Holiday Weekend which was a chance to see the film on a big screen after seeing a couple of times on the small one (I've had it on DVD since it was released as an import)

This film got an Honorable Mention at this Years NYAFF. Actually what happened was the audience voting was incredibly high in favor of the film but the votes were discounted because it already has had a US theaterical and DVD release.

I'm going to try and be brief in discussing
Red Cliff. I could discuss the film in endless detail, but I don't want to give too much away since this is full of wonderful treats and you should be allowed to find them on your own. (besides you don't want to listen to me drone on about this film. Nobody want to hear me really go on about the film)

After a decades long stay in Hollywood, director John Woo returned to China to make a film in his homeland for the first time in many years. It was to be an adaption of part of a Chinese classic tale, The Romance of the Three Kingdoms and would concern the battle of Red Cliff. The plan was to film a huge epic film and then cut it down for international release. Woo brought in the best people he could and he was even going to reunite with Chow Yun Fat. Chow for what ever reason walked away and went to do the misfire epic Confucius. The cast was shuffled slightly and the film went into a long period of production. The first half of the film was released in the summer of 2008 and was a huge hit. The second half was released in the Winter and was also a hit.

The film was eventually picked up by Magnolia for US release, however what they released was the shortened International release. When the film was finally released on DVD the film was made available for both the Theatrical cut and the full two part film (which they released as both separate parts and as a special edition of the parts together)

If you've only seen the US theatrical cut I pity you. You've seen a cut of the film that effectively removed half of the full film. The way to see the film is as the massive two part five hour version that was the way the film was originally screened in Asia and which was released in the United States and else where as "The International Cut" on DVD.

The real International Cut is the short version. This short version reduced the first film to about an hour of screen time and the second film to about an hour and fifteen minutes. (weirdly I read in one place where Woo said he kind of liked the short version better. If that's true I would argue that he's gone mad)

I'm not going to get into an argument about which version is better or why. I did that in a couple of places already with the result that I don't think that whom ever maintains the NYAFF website likes me much. This entry is about the full two part version so you can guess where I fall on that argument.

The short version of the plot has the Prime Minister of the Emperor of China using his power to consolidate all of the smaller kingdoms under the power of the Emperor. The idea is that there should only be the Emperor. What the minister didn't tell the Emperor was that once he wipes out all the smaller kingdoms he was going to get rid of Emperor and crown himself in that post.

Unfortunately the kingdoms are not going without a fight and when only three kingdoms remain they form an alliance and prepare for an attack which they know is coming at the fortress at Red Cliff. Part one of the film takes us up to the point where the two armies are about to square off. The second part of the film, is eventually, the land and sea battle.

Okay, let me not put too fine a point on it, in my humble opinion the two part Red Cliff, is, despite its flaws, one of the greatest films ever made. Rarely has any film ever had the ability to be both a small scale human story and an epic armies crashing tale. Its comparable only two other multi part epics Sergei Bondarchuck's War and Peace and Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings.

I love this film and I was handing off import copies from the time the first film came out on import DVD until the film was finally released here in the US. (I've since picked up the US release and I steer everyone to that)

I know some people don't like this sprawling, rambling epic in its five hour form. They argue that there are too many characters, too much talk (there is a great deal of philosophy) and too many subplots with the result it takes its time between battle scenes. Actually the only arguments I've heard for the short version is that its faster to the action, however what people don't realize is there are huge cuts in the battle scenes as well. * I don't understand why anyone would want to just cut to the fights since the dialog and philosophy add so much emotional resonance to the battle sequences.

I love the long version. I love the philosophy. I love the characters. I love that it takes time to get to know everyone so that many of the token characters of the first half shine in the second. I love that Woo has taken the time to create a real place on film that is inhabited by real people. Everyone, even in the small roles seems to have a real personality. There are these wonderful small moments, such as the speech at the funeral pyres in the second half, that manage to say so much more that just the crashing or armies.(The speech is gone from the short version)

What I love is that Woo has created all of these interpersonal relationships that really pay off in the end. I could wax poetic about the relationship of the three leads but their relationship stand in what ever version of the film you see and are ultimately much too obvious a point of discussion. Rather I want to talk about the small moments that break your heart during the final battle. Actually I want to talk about this one relationship, removed from the short version, that is a masterpiece of screen coupling.

The sister of one of the characters ends up disguising herself as a man and going into the enemy camp in order to spy. No one catches on and she manages to make the acquaintance of an enemy soldier who becomes her friend. However war spits on friendship and the enemy soldier is killed during the final assault. When the battle is over and the dead are being counted the girl kneels mourning over her fallen friend in a quiet testament to the stupidity of war it breaks your heart (And while I'm mentioning it the final shot of the relationship remains in the short version of Red Cliff, despite the fact that everything that would make the shot mean something has been removed). Its this wonderful moment about the cost of fighting and for a chunk of the film the set up seems so trivial, but in the end its not.

If you like action this film has it. Almost from the start the film has large scale action sequences. Going from the opening twenty minute battle to final hour plus assault this film is full of some of the most amazing battle sequences ever put on film. Truly awe inspiring and magical. And while there is some use of CGI, particularly in the fiery boat battle at the end (it had to be lest they roasted all of China) the film seems surprisingly to have been filmed with real people in real places. To me its so great not to have fake armies fighting fake armies.

And yes the film isn't perfect. It does get a bit too talky at times, there are simply too many characters and too many plots, but at the same time the film being too much makes the film just right. We feel the film bleed off the screen. We really are in these places and we are seeing armies crash. I will gladly suffer through the few flaws because the film manages to get so much right.

I should probably add that women looking for strong female characters should see this film since much of the second half of the film and the success of the good forces's plans hinges on the actions of two women who take it upon themselves to do what no man could. All of the talk in this film and about this film is about the men, but the few women in it hold their own and then then some.(I mean think about how strong the women have to be to stand out among all of the men.)

You need to see this film so DVD is fine. I know outside of Asia your chances of seeing the full two part version on the big screen is small, but if you do get the chance to see it that way do so. The New York Asian Film Festival screened the film this year in all its epic glory and the world was a better place for it.

(*An Aside: What never made sense to me was that some people don't like the talk in this film and just wish it were all action, crucified the film The Three Kingdoms (2008)(aka Resurrection of the Dragon on US DVD), which came out ahead of Red Cliff and used the same source, as being all action and no plot. Clearly you can't win.)

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