By Anne Thompson | Thompson on Hollywood November 25, 2009 at 1:12AM
John Woo's historic epic Red Cliff is one of the best films of the year. Already a huge hit in Asia, which financed the original two-part $80-million five-hour war film (the most expensive movie ever produced in China), the two-and-a half-hour western cut of Red Cliff launched stateside last week in New York without much fanfare, and opens on 30 screens in 15 markets including L.A. this holiday weekend. The reviews are strong (Tomatometer 86%, Metascore 73.)
What gives? Well, indie distributor Magnolia was shocked at how easily they landed the movie against no other bidders for a low upfront fee. Part of the problem is that the movie had already played in Asia, where piracy is rampant. Anyone can pick up a pirated DVD for nothing. No foreign Oscar bid was possible because China did not submit the first part for consideration in 2008, nor the second in 2009. At first Magnolia was led to believe that the film was eligible for a Golden Globe, but eventually the HFPA said that no, the 148-minute version had to be the same as the one released in the country of origin. That was the end of that idea.
A concentrated Oscar bid for direction, cinematography, production design or costumes could be persuasive, but the Academy screening committee didn't see fit to book it for their members. (They probably had no idea what it was.) At this point, the VOD (Amazon and Xbox Live) and theatrical release are aimed at hawking the eventual March 30 launch of both the long and short versions on DVD and Blu-Ray, with extras. "There has to be a groundswell out there," said Magnolia's Eamonn Bowles of his plans for an Oscar campaign, "a level of enthusiasm for us to get behind."
In many ways Red Cliff is Woo's bid for cinematic grandeur--he's aspiring to the sumptuous period war films of Akira Kurosawa, Ang Lee or Zhang Yimou. Woo (A Better Tomorrow, Hard Boiled) is one of the few Hong Kong action directors who was able to adapt to shooting big-budget Hollywood studio movies, from Hard Target and Face/Off to Broken Arrow and Mission: Impossible 2. Woo is arguably one of the greatest action directors working today. Revered in Asia, he got a kick out of bringing his studio expertise to China. "I learned so much from Hollywood craftspeople here," says Woo. "I wanted to take it back to Asia so young people could learn from it. They all want to make a big-budget Hollywood movie. It's an opportunity to use new equipment. We brought good people from the U.S., and a visual effects team."
Filmed for 13 months with eight months of post, the movie is BIG: massive battles on foot and horseback, sea battles with flaming arrows and fleets of blazing ships, elegant sets and costumes, gorgeous landscapes, swooping, sophisticated digital FX shots, and thousands of extras, both real and digital. The Chinese government supplied 700 to 1500 Army solders as needed to help build roads as well as act. And the VFX team delivered a very expensive two-minute shot of a camera following a Woo's signature dove flying miles across rough terrain between two enemy camps.
While Woo reveled in the freedom of moviemaking without studio interference, shooting the picture almost killed him and his tireless producer Terence Chang. They were under unbelievable duress. For anyone who knows anything about film production, see the film, and you'll understand why. Luckily, China offered strong infrastructure and a huge sound stage. The most dangerous thing was the weather, Woo says. He shot the ingenious "turtle formation" scene in the hot summer. Soldiers wound up in the hospital. And in the final battle, several stuntmen were injured in the fire, which was pushed by a strong wind. While he creates storyboards, Woo keeps the slow-fast rhythms of the action in his head. "It's like a musical," says the director, who keeps four units running at once and uses six cameras running at different speeds; he shot 2 million feet of film. "I design an action sequence like a dancing scene. I already know what I want, everybody knows my style."
And yet even the truncated version--Woo went through seven writers and 13 drafts-- is clear and coherent to those who don't know the history behind the battle, which is as famous in China, Japan and Korea as The Battle of Thermopylae. The Chinese cherish this story of character and cunning, of the little guys using strategy and tactics to outwit and outfight the greater force. "Such a small army can defeat a bigger army with teamwork, innovation, intelligence and courage," he says. Woo could be speaking about how he and his crew survived the shoot.
Lust, Caution star Tony Leung, Takeshi Kaneshiro (House of Flying Daggers) and the pan-Asian cast are superb, their characters identifiable and accessible. Red Cliff is exhilarating, eye-popping, and fun. "The characters are like superheros for Asia," says Woo. "I want to make them human, just like people, kind, warm, have energy, laugh, have sense of humor." Woo added several smart, strong women to the legend. "I tried to make it so we could relate to them."
Four Asian distributors joined forces to back Red Cliff, which Columbia was interested in backing early on, before it ultimately balked at the film's bulk, length and potential pricetag. (The budget soared from $35 million to $50 million to $80 million.) Producer Chang assembled the film's initial production funding, taking a bank loan against investments from Korea's Showbox Entertainment, the China Film Group, Taiwan's CMC Entertainment and Japan's Avex Entertainment. Summit Entertainment handled global presales.
"There was no other way to do it," said Chang on the phone from Beijing. "It's a Chinese film based on a famous story well-known in Asia that John has wanted to do for 20 years."
After Woo's longtime Hong Kong star Chow ditched the film on the first day of shooting on April 14, the company had to destroy a lavish set complete with a running river built at Beijing Studios to make way for Chen Kaige's next film. Leung stepped in for Chow. China's cash-only below-the-line filmmaking costs about a third of what it would have cost to shoot in the U.S. Red Cliff would have run at least $200 million to shoot Stateside, according to Chang.
Next up: Woo keeps his eye on several U.S. projects, from a remake of Melville's Le Samurai to a Marco Polo film to the World War II flying film The Flying Tigers. And there's an action musical, too. "I wish I could make it," says Woo. "It's one of my biggest dreams."
Here's a clip: