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Rule book ditched in making ‘Red Cliff’ films

by Kaori Shoji

In Asia, Chang Chen is famed for his cool, gangtserish good looks and his irreverent manner.

He debuted age 14 in Edward Yang’s 1991 classic “A Brighter Summer Day” and has since worked with some of Asia’s most formidable auteurs such as Wong Kar-wai (“Buenos Aires”) and Ang Lee (“Green Destiny”).

Chen describes himself as “earnest and hardworking,” but has not particularly considered whether his success in “Red Cliff” will lead to Hollywood.

“I’m an actor first and last, so if I get an attractive offer to work in Hollywood, then of course I’ll be happy to do that” says Chen. “Still, I think I’m at my best when I get to work with directors I know and have great respect for. ‘Red Cliff’ was such a case. I considered it a huge honor when John Woo asked me to play Sun Quan.”

The actor met the media during a promotion tour with the rest of the Red Cliff Team — Woo, Tony Leung and Chiling Lin — and spoke about working on the set of the most expensive film ever made by an Asian nation.

Tell us about John Woo’s directing methods. This was the first time in almost 20 years that Woo had returned to China to work on a film. Was it different from working with directors who go back and forth, like Ang Lee for instance?

The most notable difference is that John Woo doesn’t limit his audience. He aims for a global market and in his scheme, global is everybody, including audiences that had never heard of “The Romance of the Three Kingdoms” and couldn’t care less. He wanted to reach out to everyone, and that meant the film didn’t have to be historically authentic or even purely Chinese. I won’t say that John Woo dumbed the story down for public consumption, but I could see it was a hell of a lot of hard work to tailor a historical story to fit today’s market standards and still be uncompromising on the artistic level. In the end, I was surprised at how the film felt so contemporary and urgently real. John doesn’t waste time, and he never sticks to a rule book. Things are always fluid on his set, and the situation changes by the minute, but it keeps everyone on their toes. I felt alive and electrified every single day.

How long was the filming? Part 1 and 2 together are about five hours long.

We started in April and finished in December. There were in-between periods of four to seven weeks when we would take a break or spend time traveling to the next location. But basically, we were living and breathing “Red Cliff” for eight months.

In Part 2, Sun’s personality changes perceptibly from Part 1. Was it difficult to act that out?

John never told us whether a certain scene was for Part 1 or 2. He would take me to one side and tell me a little story, like a parable. It was up to me to figure out what he meant, have that reflect on my acting. But John never says do this, do that. He likes to suggest things and tell little anecdotes about the character or events out of his daily life for example, and see what we would do with that. When I saw the whole movie I understood the whole of his directing, and Sun Quan’s personality. I feel that he’s very contemporary, a modern guy with modern hangups.

But he’s wearing a wig.

Yeah, the wig! Believe me, getting into that wig was the hardest part.