Epic homecoming

John Woo’s dream project of 18 years, Red Cliff, has finally come to the big screen.

JOHN Woo laughs out loud. I’ve just toldhim that I see the similarity betweenthe scene with Zhao Zhilong (Hu Jun)rescuing the infant heir to the Xu kingdom inRed Cliff, and Chow Yun-fat and the baby inHardboiled. The Hong Kong director smilesand nods in agreement when I also tell himthat I suspect he was influenced by Zhilong’sstory when he made Hardboiled.

If he seems a little sheepish, maybe it’sbecause his secret is out.

Ba Sen Zha Bu playsGuan Yu, one of thegenerals of the Xukingdom and a famouscharacter in Chineseculture and literature.

“Yes!” he says, still nodding. He is in KualaLumpur with actors Lin Chiling, Chang Chenand Zhang Fengyi to promote Red Cliff. “WhenI was a kid, I really admired Zhao Zhilong. Hewas my hero. So when I made Hardboiled, oreven A Better Tomorrow, I used Zhao Zhilong’simage for Chow Yun-fat.”

It wouldn’t be too wrong to say that everyoneis glad that Asia’s preeminent actionmovie director is back on homeground, afterspending years in Hollywood making suchhits as Face/Off and Mission: Impossible II.

Though in his last few years there, his filmsstarted to become a little monotonous(Windtalkers, Paycheck), Woo was, however,still able to keep up the action with his trademarkslow-motion sequences and Mexicanstand-offs.

During a press conference for Paycheck inTaipei in 2003, Woo mentioned that he wantedto make an epic movie in Asia to showcasemore of Asian culture and heritage. He hadlamented rather humorously that somepeople in the United States mistook him forTaiwanese director Ang Lee. So he wanted toshow that no, we don’t all look the same.

Fast-forward to the present, and Woo hasfinally gone and done it. Red Cliff, Woo’sdream project of more than 18 years, hasfinally come to the big screen. It’s an ambitious,sprawling historical epic, partly basedon the famous Chinese literary work, Romanceof the Three Kingdoms, and partly based on thehistorical facts of the Warring States period,particularly the great standoff between theHan empire and the alliance of the Xu andEast Wu kingdoms.

Hong Kong director John Woo relishes the experience he gained from working inHollywood and uses it to bring Red Cliff to life on screen. – SAMUEL ONG / The Star

At US$80mil (RM256mil), with a cast andcrew of thousands, it’s the most expensiveChinese-language film ever made, and it tookthree years of planning and another year ofpre-production. It was rife with problemsfrom the start, with actors leaving and returning,and recently with an accident on asecond-unit shoot that killed a stuntman andinjured three others.

But the first part of Red Cliff has arrived,and it has proved to be an exciting, gorgeouslyshot and often humorous film. The anticipationfor it has shown in the numbers generatedby its successful opening in several Asiancountries last week. It had the biggest openingin Taiwan, grossing NT$16mil (RM1.7mil).

Woo says he greatly appreciates the opportunityto work in Hollywood, and relished thechance to work with actors such as JohnTravolta, Nicolas Cage and Tom Cruise, andespecially the friends he has made. But headmits that he gets less space for creativitythere, and that he has to work strictly accordingto the script, budget and time.

“When we got on the set, we just executedit,” he explains. “I didn’t get any creativeexcitement. Usually I like to work with theset. Whenever I get some new ideas, I justchange things right away, like how I used todo it in Hong Kong. That’s why I wanted tocome back to China to make a movie which I have been dreaming of making for a longtime.”

But he says the knowledge he has gainedfrom Hollywood has helped greatly with RedCliff, especially with the amount of specialeffects sequences, such as the stunning finale(in the second part) with 2,000 burning ships.

And among the crew of Red Cliff wereyoung Chinese film students and those new tothe industry, who were eager to learn. Woofelt he could help them greatly by gettingthem to work on a challenging project likeRed Cliff.

John Woo’s Red Cliff, at US$80 mil (RM256 mil), is the most expensive Chinese language movie ever made. It is based on the famous Chinese literary work, Romance of the ThreeKingdoms.

“I think it’s very good to let them getinvolved while bringing in some great peoplefrom Hollywood,” he says. “Then they canlearn from each other. That’s very good for theyoung people. It was one of my intentionswhen I made Red Cliff.”

The film employed no fewer than two cinematographersand three editors. While thechange in cinematographers was due tocontractual obligations, using three editorswas a kind of experiment for Woo. FamousHong Kong editor Angie Lam, Chinese editorYang Hongyu and American Robert Ferretti allhave very individual styles.

“It’s very interesting to see how they lookat a movie and how to tell a story,” says Woo.

“I tried to combine their good points andbring them all together. I think they will makeall kinds of audiences find the movie interesting.”

But there are already complaints about howRed Cliff deviates from Romance of the ThreeKingdoms. For instance, it is hinted that thereal reason why Cao Cao (Zhang Fengyi) of theHan empire goes to war is because he issecretly in love with Xiao Qiao (Lin Chiling),the beautiful wife of East Wu viceroy Zhou Yu(Tony Leung). It is somewhat like a Helen ofTroy angle. But Woo maintains that he wantedto make the characters more human andless mythical than in the books, and includedmore historical facts. He knows he can’texpect to please everyone.

“As a director, I feel I’m like a painter,” saysWoo. “After I finish a painting, I leave it forthe audience and let them feel what they feel.

The painting doesn’t belong to me anymore,but to anyone who sees it.”

John Woo spared no expense in making Red Cliff, which employed no fewer than two cinematographers and three editors.

And if anyone thinks Red Cliff, seen by mostas Woo’s Asian comeback, means he is stayingput in Asia from now on, they’d have to thinkagain.

“Even though I spent three-and-a-half yearsworking on this project, it doesn’t mean I’vegiven up Hollywood,” Woo assures. “I stillreally appreciate working there, so I still haveanother two projects. One is a western, acollaboration with Johnny Depp’s company.

It’s called Caliber, and it’s based on a comicbook. Another is called The Divide, a storyabout the Chinese building a railroad inAmerica. We’re still working on those.”

But for now, it’s Red Cliff until early nextyear, when the second part is slated forrelease in Asia. (The rest of the world gets asingle, two-and-a-half-hour version.)

I voice another of my suspicions, that thewipes in the film are really Woo’s tribute toAkira Kurosawa. He laughs again. Indeed, hesays he had wanted to remake Yojimbo butsomeone else has beaten him to it.

“I love Kurosawa’s movies, and I got somuch inspiration from him,” Woo says with asmile. “He is one of my idols and one of thegreat masters. (With Yojimbo), I wanted tomake my kind of a martial arts film, inmemory of Akira Kurosawa, Chang Cheh andKing Hu.”

Red Cliff, distributed by Golden ScreenCinemas, opens on Thursday.

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