A prominent example of how modern technology altered the world is seen in the way men wage war. In John Woo’s battle extravaganza “Red Cliff,” set in China in 208, armies fight with spears and shields and bare hands; they traverse deserts and treacherous mountain paths on foot and subsist on little more than rice and water, with the occasional stolen water buffalo to still the craving for protein. A simple message from one general took weeks or even months to reach another, and the fighting itself lasted for decades. The torch flame of triumph and/or revenge was passed from father to son to grandson, often right there on the battlefield. And if the soldiers had it rough, the civilians, most of them farmers, had to endure pillaging, rape and arson, their tilled and seeded farmland turned overnight into a wasteland of corpses.
“Red Cliff” brings all that and more to the screen — a whopping two and a half hours (and this is just the first of two parts) of frenzied action, feverish passion and elegantly choreographed battle scenes emphasized by some extremely realistic sound effects of splattering guts and shattering bones, punctuated with the screams from panicked masses. “But . . . this certainly is war!” goes one of the early lines, spoken by a robed court adviser. He sure got that right.
“Red Cliff” is based on the legendary Battle of Red Cliff, which Woo declares is his favorite chapter in “Romance of the Three Kingdoms,” written by Luo Guangzhong in the 14th century.
“The battle site, consisting of rocky cliff sides and the sea, gave both armies a tough time,” Woo tells The Japan Times in an interview conducted during the Tokyo International Film Festival last month. “But it was also an opportunity to demonstrate their strategic powers and skills.”
Proclaimed one of the four great works of Chinese literature, “Romance” is a historical novel that covers the last years of the Han Dynasty (206 B.C.-A.D. 220), rocked to its foundations by the Three Kingdoms wars that started up in 169 and ended more than a century later. (Imagine what the TV networks could have done with a franchise series! Imagine the merchandising and the Three Kingdoms theme park!)
The book was banned during the early days of the Cultural Revolution in the 1960s as being “much too entertaining,” which describes it in a nutshell: The characters (and there are more than 1,000 of them) are brilliantly drawn, the settings depicted on a breathtakingly majestic scale and the battle scenes recounted with gut-wrenching, fist-clenching immediacy. In Japan, parts of the book (there are 120 chapters) are often required reading in junior-high and high school, and a knowledge of the quotes and battle strategies has traditionally been the mark of a scholarly mind. In East Asia, “Romance” is on par with the works of Shakespeare — we grow up surrounded by references to Zhuge Liang (widely known as the greatest military mind Asia has ever produced) and the deep friendship between Emperor Liu Bei and his general, Guan Yu, in the same way that people in Britain grow up studying “Hamlet” and “Macbeth.”
Director Woo was especially enamored by “Romance” and grew up reading one of the many comic-book versions and play-acting some of the characters with his friends. As a child, he drew bits of the battle scenes onto pieces of glass, then took a flashlight and a blanket and barricaded himself in the closet. There, he would cover himself with the blanket, take the pieces of glass and shine the flashlight over them, which made the soldiers look as if they were really fighting.
“After about 30 minutes I would come out, suffocated and sweating,” laughs Woo. “Even at 10, I wanted to make a movie about it, somehow. I must admit, it took a lot longer than I thought.”
Woo, who is one of the first generation of Chinese directors to work and succeed in Hollywood (“Mission Impossible II”  and “Face/Off”  are among his filmography), returned to his homeland for the first time in nearly 20 years for the making of “Red Cliff,” which goes down in the books as the most expensive film ever made in Asia. He poured a total of $80 million, part of which came from his own private funding, into the project. The bill included the building of a real castle, a fortress and a road in the middle of a small island in a region three hours north of Beijing. The opening battle scene alone deployed 1,000 extras and 12 cameras.
As Woo puts it, “I wanted to get the scale of it right. I thought that if I got the grand-scale feeling of a Three Kingdoms battle, then everything else will follow.”
The battle of Red Cliff is renowned for becoming the demonstrative stage of the powers of military strategist Zhuge Liang (played here by Takeshi Kaneshiro). Zhuge, who made his name some years earlier, was hired by warlord Liu (You Yong) to work as the brains and the diplomatic emissary of his organization (at this point, supporting the ailing Han Dynasty). In the book, Zhuge is wooed and persuaded by Liu three times before he finally says yes; in the movie he comes off as a still-young scholar, wise enough to underplay his talents until the crucial moment when his strategies are truly needed.
Woo says the heroism of Zhuge lies in his restraint and mild manners; among the hot-headed generals eager for battlefield fanfare, Zhuge is apt to seem “a little lacking and slow” according to Woo. But he adds, “That was part of his strategy, part of the art of war. If the enemy underestimates you, you become that much stronger, which is something Zhuge taught the generals. He was also a romantic and a cultured man who thought his thoughts in poetry and played music; his presence transformed the battlefield and altered the course of history.”
But if the story is Chinese period history, the structure is pure Hollywood action picture, with a lot of extended man-to-man combat and full-frontal closeups of generals gnashing their teeth in fury or raising their fists in rage.
Woo also gets unabashedly sentimental: The opening sequence shows one of Liu’s wives choosing to drown herself in a well rather than surrender to the enemy, and trusted general Zhao Yun (Hu Jun) scooping up her baby in the nick of time, tying it to his back with a cloth, and literally spearing his way to safety amid the murderous army set loose by evil warmonger Cao Cao (Zhang Fengyi).
Liu, who had his moments of cruelty and madness in the original book, is drawn here as a virtuous and peace-loving master, concerned about the plight of farmers who become refugees in the wake of the fighting, and who likes to braid sandals for his foot soldiers in between battles.
And this being a John Woo movie, there’s the love story between a gorgeous couple in the midst of all the fighting — in this case between Liu’s right-hand man Zhou Yu (Tony Leung) and his wife Xiao Qiao (Chiling Lin). Xiao Qiao has the reputation of being the most beautiful woman among the Three Kingdoms, and it is partly to grab her (there’s just no other way to put it) that Cao Cao is on the warpath, swallowing up provinces like they were rice cakes. He even has an evil laugh to accompany his vampiric cape and naughty mustache.
“I wanted to make this entertaining for both Asian and Western audiences, to lighten the burden of history and focus on the personalities of the characters,” says Woo. “I hoped that people in America would look upon this like the Asian version of ‘Gladiator,’ for example, and for people in Asia to see an old and familiar tale retold with a fresh new perspective. I know from experience that people love heroism. It’s the same all over the world and a universal language, you know. With some things you don’t need dialogue or subtitles.”
Indeed, “Red Cliff” has a lot less dialogue than you’d expect from a story of such scale, probably in part due to the multinational cast. Leung and Kaneshiro speak their native Cantonese better than Mandarin, as do the actors portraying the other generals. Shidou Nakamura, an actor from one of the oldest kabuki families in Japan, appears as Liu’s general Gan Xing. The crew is a mix from Hong Kong, mainland China and Japan.
Woo’s solution was to dub all the dialogue in Mandarin. “I thought it better not to concentrate on the words too much,” he says. “There were some parts that I wanted to keep ambiguous, like the battle between good and evil. The story of the Three Kingdoms is really about ambition, and a contest of military strategy and talent. I hoped that aspect would speak for itself.”
Woo is right — much of the film is like watching an especially gripping football match, and the urge to stand up and cheer on Liu’s army becomes irresistible. That explains the collective, anguished gasp at the sight of the end credits (it certainly was loud during the press screening). The sequel is slated for release early next year, and already there’s that breathless feeling of waiting and pining for something wondrous.
“Red Cliff” is now showing.