A critic and enthusiast as old as myself was feeling bad for director John Woo a few years back. The American-produced 2002 World War II epic Windtalkers, concerning Native American code-breakers, was both widely misunderstood and unfairly subject to Private Ryan fatigue. It threw one-time cinephile cult-favorite Woo's already tentative Hollywood career into a tailspin; or at least that's how it looked to both his American claque and the detractors who felt his highly personal style of action-movie direction created too much friction with Tinseltown convention. His next picture, the indifferent, star-driven P.K. Dick adaptation Paycheck, provided a ready-made punchline concerning its ambitions and executions with its very title.
So rather than force the issue, Woo and longtime producing partner Terence Chang headed East once more, to embark on the most ambitious project of their long on-hold Asian careers: a massive two-part historical epic budgeted at $80 million—the biggest Asian-movie budget in history, a co-production uniting not just mainland China and Taiwan but South Korea and Japan and employing a vast cast of Asian stars, from Hong Kong legends Tony Leung Chiu Wai and Chungking Express star Takeshi Kaneshiro to new-to-movies Asian supermodel Chiling Lin...a massive war film about the battles initiated by the Northern warlord Cao Cao against the south, freely adapted from historical records and an 14th-century Chinese fiction entitled Romance of Three Kingdoms. Woo and Chang produced this saga as two films, both of about two hours and twenty minutes in length, to create a massive, nearly five-hour epic, à la Lang's 1922 Dr. Mabuse film or, more to the point, his two-part Nibelungen. For "international" audiences, however, this involved and engaging vision has been condensed into a single 140-minute film chronicling Cao Cao's aggression and the against-the-odds opposition supplied by the reluctant allies played by Leung and Kaneshiro. That abridgement opens in American theaters on November 20th, and fear not; it's full of amazing action, and its climax, in which various alliances and loyalties are sorely tested, is vintage Woo, whether your favorite film of his is Hard Boiled, Last Hurrah For Chivalry or Face/Off.
So what got cut from the complete version to concoct this sleeker story? Well, as it happens, I can tell you.
Ineffectual Emperor Han killing time with a bird. To underscore just how ineffectual he is, so that Cao Cao can pretty much steamroll over him.
Kaneshiro's character helping a horse deliver a baby horse. In much detail. To show how...good Kaneshiro's character is at birthing, we guess.
Right...by now you're thinking that the international version was able to cut the full running time of the two-part movie in half merely by eliminating all of the animal action. Not quite. To get serious for a bit, much of the pruning is from the film's first part, and it includes a lot of poetic touches but also some character building. As a whole, the abridged version does the most damage to the character of Cao Cao, played by the great Fengyi Zhang. His complex motivations get short shrift in the cutting, and his complex adversary winds up a rather more conventional villain. The above screen shot depicts a tea ceremony in part one that nicely sets up his climactic comeuppance in part two, which is left to stand alone in the international version.
Some material that went by the wayside in the international version isn't as sophisticated/successful, as when female warrior Sun Shangxiang (Vicky Zhao) infiltrates Cao Cao's camp in male drag and has to deal with the confused attentions of a fellow "soldier."
Nevertheless, the two-part version of the film is, to my mind, preferable, warts and all, because of its genuine sweep, and the very real passion that imbues every minute of the filmmaking. There's a poetry to this very detailed immersion in an ancient world (that's been so clearly acheived via state-of-the-art 21st century means). Truly this was a labor of love for Woo and Chang, and those who have been attuned to their visions over the years will want to be able to wallow in that. Fortunately, the Blu-ray-equipped among us who know how to shop Yes Asia or have a lively Chinatown in their own urban areas can get very excellent Blu-ray discs of both parts of Red Cliff, which your correspondent did late last year. The vicissitudes of international distribution, and the ways to get around them, just get more interesting all the time, don't they?