Battle Lines

The epic intimacy of John Woo's Red Cliff
by R. Emmet Sweeney  posted November 23, 2009
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John Woo's new film, Red Cliff, marks a shift in the director's choreography of bodies. It is a move toward intimate epics, a telescoping style where individual gestures spur intricate army formations and where every flanking maneuver or tea break has world-historical consequences. There is a glimpse of this totalizing action in Woo's undervalued World War II film Windtalkers (2002), but it reaches its expressive apex in Red Cliff, a large-canvas rendering of the Romance of the Three Kingdoms, the classic 14th-century novel that depicted the fall of the Han Dynasty.

Woo's work in Hong Kong tended toward the micro: revenge plots focused on the connections between killers and cops, all of them outsiders. These films, from A Better Tomorrow (1986) onward, were structured around rhyming patterns between two opposing characters (or small groups), using match cuts to place them in the same space and twinned action in gun battles. From this period, Bullet in the Head (1990), about three Hong Kong friends who light out to make a quick buck during the Vietnam War, is the clearest example of his interest in epic storytelling. The film is an explicit political allegory: "I wanted to use Vietnam as a mirror for what's going to happen to HK in 1997," Woo said, referring to the handover to China. (He uses the image of a lone man facing down a tank to hammer home the comparison to Tiananmen Square.) The protectorate is shown exploding with labor unrest and gang warfare, making Saigon seem like a reasonable place to escape to. The three friends (Tony Leung, Jacky Cheung, and Waise Lee) end up in a Vietcong prisoner-of-war camp. In a terrifying paroxysm of violence (this must be his bloodiest film), the three break out and disperse.

Visually, Woo focuses on a series of triangular compositions that emphasize Cheung's eponymous injury, with interlocking sequences of guns pressed against foreheads. Cheung's suffering radiates outward and destroys them all, a use of symbolic wounding that Woo inherited from his mentor, Chang Cheh (The One Armed Swordsman). The nihilistic fear of Chinese rule is reflected in Woo's style, which becomes bitterly self-critical. The series of gun-to-head images do not end in the usual self-sacrifice, but with a pistol shoved in a skull's jaw, a grim parody of his trademark gunplay. While Woo is still focused here on the movement of individual bodies, he places them against a shifting geopolitical landscape and provides a kaleidoscopic view of his stoic heroes losing their grip, undone by the flow of history.

Windtalkers darkens Woo's romantic-heroic vision while broadening the narrative scope. Part of a wave of post-Saving Private Ryan war movies (Black Hawk Down, Hart's War, and We Were Soldiers were all released that year), it was dismissed by critics and audiences, making only $40 million domestically on a $110 million budget, still his largest. Nicolas Cage's shell-shocked vet Sergeant Enders is tasked with protecting the Navajo-based code of Private Yahzee (Adam Beach) during the storming of Saipan. The film opens with Enders's defining trauma: asked to hold a line in the Solomon Islands, he watches all his men die before being knocked unconscious by a grenade. He is horrifically burned around his ear, rendering him half-deaf—another of Woo's expressive wounds. (It's a grim bit of irony that he's asked to protect a communications expert.)

The debris of the near-fatal explosion fades into the American flag and Yahzee's reservation as he prepares to leave for the army. It's a jarring shift from battleground nihilism to home-front optimism, as well as from handheld jitters to elegant pans. Woo's style in this film is an amalgam of Saving Private Ryan's jumpy realism with his own distended sense of action rhythm, maintaining his punctuating use of slow-motion, quick zooms to pick out detail, and toned-down bits of choreography. These techniques follow the relationship between Enders and Yahzee, but also of their doubles, a second Navajo, Private Whitehorse (Roger Willie), and his watcher, Sergeant Ox (Christian Slater). These two duos weave and interact, but both are subordinated to the larger outlines of the war, which Woo, with understated mastery, pulls back to show in selected bursts, whether it's a super-long shot of the lines of battle or a montage of the radio lines—from Yahzee's code to the relay station to the air force carrier.

In Red Cliff, currently in theaters in the U.S., the central duo is Zhuge Liang (Takeshi Kaneshiro), military strategist for a western kingdom, and Zhou Yu (Tony Leung), viceroy and adviser to a southern ruler. When the renegade northern general Cao Cao (Fengyi Zhang) threatens to overrun their lands, Zhuge and Zhou form an alliance to beat him back. Woo's two-part, four-and-a-half-hour mammoth, filled with precisely interlocking details, has been condensed into a disjointed two-and-a-half-hour version for U.S. theatrical release. Subplots and character development are trimmed, leaving a whirlwind blur of battles; the international cut's condescending voiceover and onscreen IDs act as instant alienation effects. Magnet's DVD and Blu-ray release next year will contain the full cut as originally released in Asia (as do Mei Ah's currently available HK discs).

Zhuge is a stand-in for Woo, an orchestrator of violence planning his attacks and counters down to the last detail, often gaining inspiration from nature. His eye for composition also comes into play when, in close-up, he places his winged fan over an army formation massed on the ground, and they match perfectly. Here the individual gesture follows the mass formation, but usually it's Zhuge who sets the platoons in motion, in tune with the landscape around him. Military strategy springs literally from the earth: he uses shields to reflect the sun in his opponents' eyes, kicks up dirt to decrease visibility, and models a defensive formation after a tortoise that inches past him on the ground.

If Zhuge is the intellectual, Zhou is the romantic, a married man who fights alongside his men in battle, a stark contrast to Zhuge's asexual ascetic. The character was to be played by Chow Yun-Fat, who pulled out shortly before filming began. Leung brings some of Chow's boyish innocence to the role, cracking Zhou's stoic facade with a raised eyebrow or split-second smirk. In visualizing the Zhuge-Zhou relationship, Woo emphasizes their opposition (Zhuge is associated with the mind, Zhou the body), pushing them to the extremes of the frame or separating them into shot-countershots. It's made explicit that these allies could soon become opponents if they are victorious over Cao Cao—their jokey slights are always on the verge of turning malevolent. An uneasy bond is forged in a wordless, Hawksian musical number, where both men jam on their qins (a Chinese stringed instrument). They engage in an angry, dissonant improvisation, exchanging increasingly agitated runs. In tune emotionally, they accept that they can work together on the battlefield without uttering a word.

No longer bound by Hollywood's notions of realism, Woo's fight sequences regain a bit of their previous delirium. He refrains from excessive wire work but returns to the Chinese opera-style tumbling that dominated his early efforts. Bouncing back and forth between Zhuge's battle plans and the grunts' deadly reality, the film suggests a topographical map veined with blood. In Windtalkers the top-down view of lined forces and lines of communication were a bit of omniscient visual narration imposed by Woo. But in Red Cliff, this epic intimacy is built into the structure itself, with Zhuge and Zhou orchestrating the war from the inside, making Woo's elaborate transitions from macro to micro views an integral part of the story, where the direction of the wind can decide the fate of a nation. 


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Magnolia Pictures
A scene from Red Cliff, directed by John Woo
Photo Gallery: Battle Lines


John Woo  |  film review  |  Red Cliff  |  Chinese cinema  |  violence  |  realism


R. Emmet Sweeney writes a weekly column for Movie Morlocks, the official blog of Turner Classic Movies. He has also contributed to Film Comment, Time Out Chicago and The Believer.

More articles by R. Emmet Sweeney
Author's Website: Movie Morlocks