Film Review: Woo makes epic return to Asia with 'Red Cliff'

'Red Cliff,' starring Zhang Fengyi, is director John Woo's  first Asian film  since he  left Hong Kong  in the early 1990s.

"Red Cliff," starring Zhang Fengyi, is director John Woo's first Asian film since he left Hong Kong in the early 1990s.

Swords clash, arrows fly, schemers plot, warships burn and beautiful women brew tea in "Red Cliff," a gargantuan epic set in ancient imperial China that is the first Asian film from director John Woo since the ace action specialist left Hong Kong for Hollywood in the early 1990s.

'Red Cliff,' starring Zhang Fengyi, is director John Woo's  first Asian film  since he  left Hong Kong  in the early 1990s.

"Red Cliff," starring Zhang Fengyi, is director John Woo's first Asian film since he left Hong Kong in the early 1990s.

Trimmed by 140 minutes to a still challenging 148 minutes for release in the West, "Red Cliff" is the most expensive film ever produced in Asia (budget: about 80 million, in U.S. dollars) and also the most successful to date at the Chinese box office, where it recently supplanted "Titanic."

The film marks a return to historical costume pageantry for Woo, who left the martial-arts genre behind to find fame with such elaborately choreographed ultraviolent Hong Kong crime thrillers as "The Killer" (1989) and "Hard-Boiled" (1992) before being lured to Los Angeles to create such ludicrous but entertaining films as "Broken Arrow," with John Travolta, and "Face/Off," with Travolta and Nicolas Cage.

Like an old-fashioned father throwing his son into a pool to teach him to swim, the American edit of "Red Cliff" immerses us with little warning into the muddy waters of the intrigue-riddled Eastern Han Dynasty, where power-hungry Prime Minister Cao Cao (Zhang Fengyi) has convinced the puppet emperor to authorize an attack on the peace-loving people of the "Southlands."

What follows are a series of set pieces chronicling this violent campaign, as the Southlands strategists (including Tony Yeung, of "In the Mood for Love") employ tactical brilliance and philosophical wisdom to rebuff the seemingly limitless ground forces and high-tech Yangtze River armada of the prime minister. "If you know how earth, sky, yin and yang change, then the sun, moon and stars, the wind, forest, mountains and fire become soldiers at your command," counsels one sage strategist.

"Red Cliff" reminded me of a Road Runner cartoon. The battlefield violence is essentially repetitious, but Woo -- the auteur as Wile E. Coyote -- introduces gimmicks ("the tortoise formation"), tricks and variations to keep things interesting. Digital effects are used liberally, but they don't overwhelm the on-camera physical action, which is played out on such a huge scale that the production might have bankrupted an American studio.

"Red Cliff" is at Malco's Studio on the Square.

-- John Beifuss, 529-2394

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