Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Red Cliff (Theatrical Version) (2009)

Red CliffThis 'international version' of John Woo's RED CLIFF is the preferred edition over the previously released (and shorter) US theatrical version. Woo worked hard to shoot this epic adaption of a famous Chinese historical novel, and the final version of the movie was so long (closer to 5 hours than 4) that in Asian markets the film was released in two parts, each playing in cinemas at opposite ends of a near 12 month period. In the US, the UK and Australia, Woo tentatively gave approval for a cut-down version to play in cinemas, with both parts condensed by 50% down to a single movie. Australian critic David Stratton (a frequent reviewer for VARIETY) gave the condensed version a good, not great review, but then noted that he felt the full, uncut edition of RED CLIFF was one of the great cinema epics. And so it is.

Woo's career seemed to take a gradual downturn in the US after the peak of FACE/OFF, and it would be hard for fans of the director's earlier HARD-BOILED or BULLET IN THE HEAD (both great films) to share the same sense of enthusiasm for works like MISSION IMPOSSIBLE 2 or the aptly titled PAYCHECK. Woo reportedly wasn't that happy with things either, so when he announced he would return to Asia to shoot the biggest historical epic in Chinese film history, it was welcome news. (RED CLIFF is based on the same story that was adapted for THREE KINGDOMS, filmed not too long ago with Andy Lau and the lithe, hypnotically sexy Maggie Q). Woo regular Chow Yun Fat was in RED CLIFF, then out. Another Woo regular, Tony Leung, was in, then out, then back in (long story). Once the casting issues were resolved, Woo took his good time to shoot the movie that had apparently tantalized him for decades. The result is a real return to form and a consummate display of confidence from a director clearly passionate about the subject matter, and the movie.

RED CLIFF is epic from the get-go. In the first few minutes (of the long cut this review deals with the 2-part extended cut listed here and will hereafter ignore the shorter version) the narrative puts events in motion for an army of thousands to commence a destructive attack across the kingdoms of China. We see thousands of soldiers (some realized digitally, others through enormous crowds of extras) and soon see a smaller band of heroes putting up a spirited defense. Characters escape the melee, seek shelter, join forces with others and prepare to make a stand against the attackers in a series of battles that escalate in size and complexity throughout the two movies. Tony Leung and Takeshi Kaneshiro are two of the main heroes. There are several other key characters fighting alongside them, and a villain of imposing stature fighting against them, determined to wipe out the heroes and consolidate his rule. Each side possesses an army, but the forces of good are outnumbered by their enemies. Interpersonal intrigue, moments of heroism and bravery, lyrical interludes where the characters philosophically ponder their situation and careful scenes where each side pragmatically plots their next movie against their opponent these all flow forward in scenes of great beauty, warmth and power, preparing the ground for each skirmish, battle or stand-off. The opposing sides gather in numbers until, at the end of part 2, we witness a ferocious, climactic attack taking place on sea and land, with thousands determined to battle to the death.

I've generalized the story above, partly for my own sake but more specifically as I suggest you catch the various incidents of the movie fresh. The story as presented by Woo is elegant and satisfying. The devil is in the details, though, and its Woo's marshalling of texture and sound, his characteristically kinetic and mobile camerawork, and the sheer bravura of the films spectacle that make this a must-see movie. Scenes in RED CLIFF, particularly the epic destructive battles comprising much of the spectacular second part, match Jackson's LORD OF THE RINGS for effects, grandiose scale and visceral impact. (Actually, I'd clarify that statement by suggesting that the RED CLIFF films match those earlier movies visually, but surpass them viscerally, as Woo's staging of the action is more physically impactful than Jacksons). The US effects house The Orphanage provided the visual effects, and the enormous budget complements those with countless eye-opening scenes staged for real with crowds, stunt men and gargantuan sets. Woo (and his producer Terence Chang) have really pulled out all the stops. I viewed RED CLIFF on DVD but if you have the equipment and the interest, the Blu-Ray edition of this extended cut should be even more enticing. (The HK Blu-Ray of these movies received top marks for AV quality and I'd imagine the US release replicates those standards).

RED CLIFF the full, uncensored, no-holds-barred two-part version didn't really get the attention it deserved upon release, (at least here in the West), nor has it since. (Another fine film, Kim Je-Woon's big-budget, visionary Korean western THE GOOD, THE BAD AND THE WEIRD, suffered a similar fate). Even so, a few astute critics such as Glenn Kenny put the full RED CLIFF high in their top 10 for the year. I'd argue the same (it'd be in my top 5), and months after I originally acquired the DVD's of this movie, I still return to it in admiration, luxuriating in its many moments of grace, beauty and power.

As Amazon occasionally conflates its reviews of variant products into the same listing, let me repeat that the edition of this film you should purchase is the RED CLIFF INTERNATIONAL VERSION PART I & PART II, on either Blu-Ray or DVD. The editions labeled as featuring the `theatrical' version are shorter, inferior, and not worth pursuing over this longer, more satisfying cut.

After watching the entirety of it, one thinks, 'It is as if Sun Tzu had written it: This is a kind of illustration of what he meant when he wrote in his ART OF WAR [500 BC]' -"All warfare is based on deception. Hence, when able to attack, we must seem unable, when using our forces, we must seem inactive; when we are near, we must make the enemy believe that we are away; when far away, we must make him believe we are near. Hold out baits to entice the enemy. Feign disorder, and cush him."

When you deal in superlatives it's difficult to make good comparisons. How many of us have seen BIRTH OF A NATION in a good print? That was the film that set the standard for sweeping battlefield drama interwoven with the stories of its participants, moving in scale from intimacy to immensity, back and forth as the story developped, fulfilled itself, then ended. Ridley Scott's KINGDOM OF HEAVEN, with its portraits of historical figures interwoven within the threads of political and religious frenzy as Jerusalem falls to the armies of Saladin. I've seen many films of historical battles, and these two, RED CLIFF and KINGDOM OF HEAVEN, are the only ones that reach BIRTH OF A NATION's high mark. In recent years we've seen TROY and ALEXANDER, and although both have been noble attempts to reach and to justify the scale appropriate to their historical subjects, neither effort managed to fulfill the expectation.

The Casting of RED CLIFF is brilliant. The many thousands of performers, from the battlefield extras and foot-soldiers, to the supporting roles, and even to the leading characters in the story, they all express and in a way never before seen, not only the ancient hegemony of China, but the enormous diversity of human appearance that hegemony must express. It's similar to the realization that steals upon one after looking at the thousands of figures of the ancient Han army unearthed only decades ago; that these statues are portraits of individuals, that that terra-cotta army is the largest extant exhibition of portrait sculpture in the world. It is a demonstration of overwhelming power and technique. And somehow, the producers of RED CLIFF have managed to re-create that feeling. The logistics of costuming, and arming such a large cast boggles the mind.

The Director, John Woo, we all know because of the number of very successful commercial Hollywood films he's made. We know that he was born, raised and educated in the USA, and in his TV interviews (on this DVD too) we find ourselves before a man of awestome accomplishments, who's confidence is expressed by his modesty.

The movie stars two remarkable young actors: They are TONY LEUNG as Viceroy Zhou Yu, and TAKESHI KANESHIRO, who plays Zhu-Ge Liang, diplomat and military advisor. LEUNG I've seen in several movies, and most recently in the remarkable HERO, with Jet-Li, and what has impressed me most about him is his ability to change his appearance and manner so prodoundly, that he appears to be able to reshape himself physically, so that one can hardly recognize him from one film to another. Here, in RED CLIFF, I was uncertain who he was until the second time I watched the film, he did a short bit of practice with his sword and I recognized him by the movement of his body. He has a way of moving as he handles his weapon, that is unique to himself; a combinatin of sinuosity and strength that reminds one of a flexing steel cable. In RED CLIFF he is clean-shaven and handsome in a straightforward, almost military way, whereas in HERO he wore a van Dyque, his hair was loose, and his face wore an expression that made him look like was listening to sad music. Very unusual! KANESHIRO, I first saw in HOUSE OF FLYING DAGGERS, playing the role of a young police detective and philandering playboy. Tall, willowy and an excellent swordsman, he is light on his feet and wears a face that charms as it thinks.

These two actors and their personal characteristics are crucial to the telling of the story because it is a story that depends on a successful alliance between two states in their effort to save themselves before an advancing enemy with power to overwhelm them both. It is a question of Persuasion, that asks, how does one persuade an intelligent, sensitive and commanding individual to join with oneself and one's few allies, in an effort to overcome a ruthless, clever and well-provisioned man who intends to conquer and overwhelm everything and everyone before him? How does one find the means to inspire not only trust, but confidence that together one can win in the face of overwhelming odds? This is not a tennis match. This is a matter of life, and/or a very unpleasant death, not only for oneself, but for one's family and clan.

Woo directs this episode with a deep understanding of what is needed to forge a friendship between two proud and independent men, that is more than a superficial alliance of necessity. This is the psychological key to the inevitable conflict. Yang meets Yin, but will they join?

The final section of Part I of RED CLIFF, features the lead up to a battle scene that is worked out partly, on a 3-dimensional model of the batlefield, where Zhu-Ge Liang places a live turtle. Nobody understands, but he is recommending a method of defeating a large, heavily armed colum of Cavalry, and we get to see it worked out in the battle itself. A carefully trained corps of Infantrymen with highly-polished shields, pikes and swords, by close-positioning their sheids into walls and assuming a series of enclosed formations, force the advancing horsemen to ride between those formations through the continually narrowing and blinding alleys those formations make. The strategy is based mostly on the predictable behavior of frightened horses. The streams of horses speed up as the alleys narrow. WHen the alleys turn, abruptly, the horses must follow, because startled, they can see no way out, only one way forward. The riders are picked off by the infantrymen, from behind, and killed as they are dragged inside the shields. In no time at all the Cavalry force is consumed within the formation of shields, which from above and in perspective resembles a turtle's carapace.

PART TWO shows us how the war is fought by means of knowledge of the weathr, about how to trick your opponhent into giving you his arms without knowing that he is doing so, and how to let your enemy cripple himself by thinking he is punishing traitors when he is only elimiating dupes.

Much of this part has to do with intelligent spying, by infiltrating the ehemies ranks, and about the use of instant communications; here, it means the use of carrier pidgeons.

And of suprememe importance; it has to do with understanding the weather; the movement of the winds and clouds. The defenders of RED BLUFF want to use fire against the blockade of ships filling the river before then, and the stockade straddling the river, beyond then, but hesitate because the wind will blow the fire back at them. BLOWBACK, literally. But Zhu-Ge Liang has reasoned that the wind will change because he has been watching the clouds and testing the humidity, and he has come to believe that the seasonal wind will reverse itself at about 01:00 AM.

And here something is revealed that astonished me. As Zhu-Ge looks up at the sky, we see an unusual form of cumulous (rain-bearing) couds streaking or hurtling across the sky. It looks like a kind of smoke pot being pulled across the heavens, trailing a body and tail behind itself. And instantly you remember that the Dragon is a rain-bearing spirit that appears regularly, and seasonally, and is a manifestation of goodness (or luck) and masculinity (or fecundity) causing seed to germinate. With his motion-picture camera, John Woo offers us a unique filmed portrait of China's Dragon. So, what we see is what Chinese people have always seen, and artists for thousands of years have attempted to draw; that is, a coiling, feathery cloud-serpent skittering across the sky.

Nevertheless, battle plans are set. All forces are in formation. There is a water-clock, and we watch the minutes pass, drop by drop.

Much else is happening. The Viceroy's beautiful wife, Chiling Lin has left their home in order to go to their adversary and to plead for an end to the war. Does she know that he is and has been her secret admirer since the time he first saw her while visiting her father? Perhaps. What is her weapon?

On board the enamy's command vessle, the would-be conqueror prepares to enjoy possessing the Viceroy's wife.

Our spy, the King's sister, has escaped the forces of their opponents and throwing off her man's disguise, reveals her knowledge in the form of a painted cloth wound around her body, which turns out to be a detailed map of the enemy's fortifications and navy.

As the enemy commander welcoms the wife of his adversary on board his ship, once in possession of her quarters she begins to prepare tea, and invites her host/captor to have some. He accdepts.

The winds reverse and flags display it. The fire-boats are launched from RED CLIFF and one-by-one they crash into the enemy navy's wooden ships. The battle begun on the water, moves to the land as allies of the RED CLIFF comrades return to fight with them against their common enemy.

The battle is joined, in earnest, and I don't think there is any conflagration on film to compare with it; not even the burning of Atlanta. Ive never seen any acting-out of warfare more complex, more detailed than this. The scale of it is incredible. Battle scene buffs and advocates of all stripe will want to watch this, and will come away with something to satisfy themselves, I feel sure.

Finally, in a sentence or two, this film of John Woo's is unlike many if not most of the Chinese historical films we've seen for the past few years, if only because he does not rely on lore or fantasy or fantastical effects to carry his story forward. Instead, he uses standard cinematic practice, as any of the big-screen American directors might have used it in their Westerns. Every shot, every episode is built solidly upon every shot and episode before it, until the progress of the action -as astonishing as it often is -appears as inevitable as nature herself might have made it. Nothing is obscure. One leaves the experience satisfied, not puzzled. We understand all the characters, all the situations. Everybody, everywhere in the world, will watch, enjoy and praise this film, because it is universal in its story-telling power, and thrilling in the display of its immense cinematic competence.

Buy Red Cliff (Theatrical Version) (2009) Now

I've seen John Woo's Red Cliff a couple of times now in both the full "international" version, which is really the way the film was made and the shorter International version which was shown in theaters and on pay per view here in the US. This version essentially removes over two hours of material from the story. (If I figured it correctly this version cuts the first half of the full version to an hour and the second half to about 80 minutes)

To me the full version is the way to go and not this theatrical release. The problem with this short version is that it removes a great deal of character development, numerous subplots (which makes several shots at the end of the film not mean anything-why is that soldier mourning a dead enemy? Its something thats been removed), the real ends of some characters and plots, and amazingly a great deal of the action sequences (the most obvious cuts are in the opening and closing battle sequences which are very cut down). In this case less is less.

Yes, the film moves faster (but I think more confusingly) and yes its removed many of the philosophical and strategic talks that some people found dull, but at the same time it makes the film little more than a series of connected battle scenes.The full version has a scope of action and character rarely equaled in film. This short version is pomp and circumstance with little behind it. I also find it confusing, which is strange since I had seen the full version twice prior to seeing this cut version.

To me the way to go is to see the full version. yes its five hours long but its on DVD where you can stop and pause. This version is considerably less than that full version, containing many of the visual highs but little of the emotional peaks.

Read Best Reviews of Red Cliff (Theatrical Version) (2009) Here

"Red Cliff" marks the triumphant return of director John Woo to Chinese cinema after spending over fifteen years in Hollywood crafting nearly back-to-back blockbusters (including "Mission Impossible II" & "Face/Off"). Having previously established himself as the premier auteur of testosterone-fueled action sequences with Hong Kong classics such as "The Killer" and "Hard Boiled", the task of mounting a sprawling epic such as "Red Cliff" had to prove a daunting task for even the most seasoned director. Made on an $80 million budget, the film proved wildly successful overseas, garnering strong reviews and even stronger box office profits to the tune of some $240 million. Stateside, the film had a limited theatrical release but earned excellent reviews (it currently holds an impressive 88% out of 98 reviews on Rotten Tomatoes).

Much has already been written about the quality of the film itself, with most of the negative criticism either coming from the tiresome "the film can't hold a candle to the book" camp or the amusingly misguided camp (Rob Thomas of the Capital Times wrote "It's like the most complicated game of Stratego ever", strangely framing that sentence as if it's a mark against the film). Suffice it to say that if you enjoy lavish epics such as "Mongol: The Rise of Genghis Khan", "The Last Samurai", or "Braveheart", it naturally follows that you'll enjoy this impressive entry in the genre as well. The Blu-Ray offers a razor sharp, crystal clear image and unobtrusive, easy to read subtitles (only available in English & Spanish). The "Red Cliff" Soundtrack is also worth a look, as it's strong enough to stand on its own apart from the film.

As with the "The Lord of the Rings" Trilogy, the general consensus is that the extended version is the 'superior' version. This isn't necessarily so, in fact, the U.S. theatrical cut of "Red Cliff" catches the high notes and broad strokes in a conveniently time-efficient, condensed version of the film. This is useful when watching with friends or family, or for the more impatient viewers only interested in the film for its celebrated battle sequences. It would be more accurate to refer to the international version as the 'preferred' version, as it naturally offers a much more well-rounded story with expanded subplots as well as more focused character development.

On the first disc, Part I runs 2:25:24, and the special features include:

1) "The Making of Red Cliff: The Long Road" (2:25:50) This is a making-of feature as sprawling as the film itself, covering every facet of production and offering some great behind the scenes moments. This is also quite notably the only feature NOT presented in HD.

2) "Storyboarding Red Cliff from Script to Screen with John Woo" (18:00) This is a nice split-screen feature comparing scenes from the film to their corresponding storyboards, with director Woo's commentary. No commentary for the film itself is included.

3) "HDNet: A Look at Red Cliff" (4:35) This is a brief promotional clip, much like a bumper trailer one would see inbetween films on cable television.

On the second disc, Part II runs 2:21:30, and the special features include:

1) "A Conversation with John Woo: The Journey of Red Cliff" (45:34) This is an informative interview with the director, seemingly taken from the same conversation that generated the storyboard commentary.

2) A selection of 98 storyboards, navigated with the remote by the user.

I have but two small complaints about the Blu-Ray release. First of all, while the ubiquitous making-of feature is nice and thorough, a feature covering the actual history behind the Red Cliff legacy would've proved much more entertaining and useful. I would've especially liked to have seen a roundtable discussion with the screenwriters describing why they altered or added certain details in the film that ran contrary to the actual historical events. Case in point, the 2-Disc DVD version of "Kingdom of Heaven" is legendary for its two comparative special features "Movie Real: Kingdom of Heaven" (as seen on A&E) and "History Vs. Hollywood: Kingdom of Heaven" (as seen on The History Channel). Both were not only educational but served to enhance my appreciation of the magnitude of the historical events, and by extension, enhance my enjoyment of the film in general.

Secondly, the Amazon listing for this item states that the item may ship without shrink wrapping. My copy certainly did not have it, and the Blu-Ray case arrived scuffed and scratched (it shipped in a padded envelope). There was also a tacky sticker stuck on the case that declared "2 DISCS ACTION PACKED FIVE HOUR FEATURE". This is perhaps not an issue for some, but for those as protective and particular about their collections as I am, it's more than a little irritating. Still, aside from these admittedly minor complaints, the "Red Cliff" Blu-Ray offers a lavish, exciting entry in the epic canon and a worthy addition to any film buff's collection.

Want Red Cliff (Theatrical Version) (2009) Discount?

My experience with foreign films is tragically limited. I've watched a few mainstream hits such as Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,Hero Special Edition, Battle Royale: Director's Cut (Collector's Edition), and then a few beyond that aren't worth mentioning. And my experience with John Woo's films is even more limited, encompassing only his John Travolta/Nicholas Cage-driven ventures. So, I didn't quite know what I was getting into when I rented RED CLIFF. I had read the reviews and seen all the five stars, but people tend to get excited over visually spectacular foreign films like HERO. So I popped in the first part of the film, then the second part, and I quickly found out that all the hype was justified.

This marks the first time I can honestly say that I want to watch a nearly five hour movie a second time.

The basics: RED CLIFF takes place at the beginning of the third century CE and revolves around three warring kingdoms of China. This conflict eventually climaxes in the Battle of Red Cliffs, where the Emperor's forces clash with the allied armies of two warlords. That's the simplified take, but there's nothing simple about this movie.

To westerners like myself, the first half hour was tough to get through; getting all the names right, figuring out why everyone's fighting and what they're all fighting over was difficult. But as the pace slows down, the movie deliberately takes us around and allows us to get to know each of the many main characters individually. This was done very well; everyone gets some rather deep characterization. Everyone had their own quirks, personality, and attitude, so by the time they all start mingling it was hard to get lost again.

The battles that take place between the three kingdoms are vast, bloody, and mind-blowing. By the end of PART I, I was already impressed; the choreography and action rivals some of the best parts of other epics like TROY and THE LORD OF THE RINGS. But by the end of PART II, oh man; the bar had been kicked up to new heights. It's hard to believe the scale of some of these battles within the context of a movie, let alone believe it when you realize that all of this actually happened.

But make no mistake, this isn't a humorless, four hour bloodbath. The action doesn't drive the film; it's the characters and the story that make up the backbone of RED CLIFF. I came to adore each and every character, their sense of honor, their reasons for going to war, and the friendship that allowed them to best the odds. I even came to sympathize with the characters on the other side of the battle, the Emperor's armies. John Woo has done all he can to ensure that while you're rooting for one side, you understand the motives of both, so that the outcome is perhaps that much more ambiguous.

I really came to adore RED CLIFF. It has something for everyone: an historical epic that plays at Chinese mysticism, memorable characters, romance, comedy, friendship, and some of the most intense action set pieces ever put to film. Anyone who even THINKS that they might like this movie should give it a try. It might be over four hours long, but it did more to hold my attention than other movies a quarter of its length.

And many of you might have noticed an additional THEATRICAL VERSION of RED CLIFF available. I would highly recommend that you opt for this INTERNATIONAL VERSION; I have no idea how they could cut this movie in half and still make it presentable. I have no idea how they could cut this movie in the first place! A grave disservice to a near-perfect film.

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