John Woo’s Chinese-language historical epic Red Cliff (Magnet) arrived on DVD and Blu-ray last week in both the original two-part, five-hour version released in China (to great acclaim and success) and most of the world, and in the American theatrical version, which was cut by almost half. For reasons beyond my comprehension, the publicists responsible for promoting this release were only providing the cut American version for critics (or maybe just me), so I had to wait for the street date to finally get a hold of the long version to review. And having seen it, I can’t imagine why they wouldn’t want every DVD critic to see this sweeping, magnificently mounted epic as it was originally conceived, completed and screened in the rest of the world rather than the abbreviated digest version.
Both versions are essentially about a major historical battle and the strategies and behind-the-scenes planning behind it all (with the usual exceptions made for dramatic license), a magnificent military epic with the scale of Lord of the Rings and the grand visual majesty of the recent wave of Chinese historical epics as incarnated through the stylistic muscle of John Woo. In third century China, Prime Minister Cao Cao (Zhang Fengyi) pressures the Emperor to make his General of the army and let him conquer the kingdoms to the south (it’s a “preemptive strike” to put down a rebellion that has yet to happen). The elder ruler Sun Quan (Chang Chen), retreating from his land, joins forces with the young, untested Sun Quan (Chang Chen) to make a stand against the superior forces of Cao Cao at Red Cliff on the Yangtze River, a tiny military force taking on vastly superior numbers with the guidance of the brilliant strategist and diplomat Zhu-Ge Liang (Takeshi Kaneshiro behind a knowing smile) and the strong, silent, studly Zhou Yu (Tony Leung Chiu Wai, an old Woo star from the Hong Kong days taking charge by sheer presence).
The American cut is a handsome and grandly-mounted production where human dramas are sacrificed to spectacle. The original two-part version is not simply more filled out with a more interesting weave of character relationships, it’s the closest we’ve come to an honest-to-God John Woo film in a decade, full of dramatic grace notes, heroic melodrama and Woo’s love of visual metaphors, which don’t just accompany the drama but act as foreshadowing and ironic counterpoint to the action.
I watched the cut version in the theater in 2009 just to get a sense of the scale and the way he works his visuals on the big screen and I’m glad I did. While watching the International Version at home, when I got to the scene where the camera rises from the deck of Cao Cao’s ship heading up the Yangtze River and reveals tens of ships, then scores, then more and more filling the river up to the vanishing point of the screen, I was able to remember just how awesome (emphasis on the “awe”) that scene looked on the big screen and how that sense of scale is unique to the big screen. But so much more was lost in that American theatrical cut, which crammed in so much exposition and historical background in the opening minutes that you were overwhelmed with information before it even started. Woo edited that version himself and his rhythms and style are all preserved, but he sacrificed so much in the process. Just to pick one significant scene that loses depth and dramatic power in the translation: The American version plays Zhu-Ge’s scheme to replenish the depleted supply of arrows as a clever feint executed with a quiet sense of wily satisfaction on Zhu-Ge’s part. In the original cut, the scheme is part of a larger weave, one element of a shift in trust between Zhou Yu and Zhu-Ge Liang and the final piece of a second, more insidious scheme concocted by Zhou Yu (who, it turns out, is a skilled forger). It doesn’t just steal much needed ammunition, it seals the doubt that was seeded in a plot begun much earlier and plays on Cao Cao’s fierce temper: a brilliant piece of sabotage. All three stories feed the others and give multiple narrative payoffs and dramatic satisfactions.
To be fair, even the longer version sacrifices personal dramas to the grand design—the individual complications are limited to familiar dramas—and the classic conventions of heroic bloodshed are followed to the point that every significant military officer jumps into the fray to single-handedly take out a division or two through superior training and sheer pluck. It’s a romanticized take on a big, bloody war, where the brave, fierce, stalwart warriors are completely and unflinchingly loyal to their respective rulers, bonds of friendship are forged in battle, inappropriately generous expressions of honor are granted defeated enemies and the leaders of the two southern kingdoms are unfailingly loyal to their peasant subjects. It’s also a beautifully executed epic, dense and detailed and created on a scale that I haven’t seen on screen in decades. Woo is a director who conducts a battle like a symphony, complete with separate movements, recurring themes and stand-out solo parts that all come together in the finale. They are engrossing, action painting on a scale he has never before had the opportunity to execute. For the breathtaking long shots of armies and navies moving into position, he uses CGI to fill the screen with a painter’s eye and a tactician’s precision.
Takeshi Kaneshiro smiles enigmatically as he observes military formations or studies the environment to predict a game-changing shift in the weather, Tony Leung radiates quiet strength and total devotion to his beautiful wife (Taiwanese pop star Lin Chiling, who projects a Zen-like calm even as she’s being hunted by the enemy). Their star power and dignified strength carries the big cast of characters, not compelling personal stories, while the colorful collection of loyal officers provide the expected character humor and offbeat personality. But the character connections are so much more satisfying in this version, and the weave so much more intricate and engrossing. It’s still centered on the friendship and mutual respect between Zhou Yu and Zhu-Ge Liang, but this time through we confront the precarious nature of such a friendship between loyal servants of rival leaders in a temporary union, as well as the tensions between officers from the different armies working out their co-existence. The tomboy Princess (Zhao Wei) shows a much more spirited personality here. Even Cao Cao, the invading General with superior numbers and overweening hubris and ambition, shows just how he became such a powerful and commanding leader by rousing his troops for the final battle. And yes, the battles are all longer and more intricate, but it’s still the grace notes that give his epic vision the emotional foundation. The International Version is twice as long as the American, but because of the dense weave of character stories and plot threads filling out the narrative, it feels more urgent and engrossing.
The Blu-ray edition of Red Cliff: Original International Version puts each part of the epic on its own disc. The image is excellent, sharp and vivid and painted in rich color. The 2 ½ hour Chinese documentary “The Making of Red Cliff: The Long Road” is detailed but not particularly compelling, and for some reason it has been presented in 4×3, non-anamorphic letterbox format, which means the image (already pretty weak) is generally in the middle of the screen while the English subtitles are along the bottom (which you means you can’t zoom in on the picture unless you are fluent in Mandarin). “A Conversation with John Woo: The Journey of Red Cliff” is a 45-minute video interview conducted in English by Leo Quinones. There’s also a featurette on the storyboards and the purely promotion “HDNet: A Look at Red Cliff.”