Cliff hanger

More than just a record-breaking movie, Red Cliff rebrands China for the West

Cliff hanger

John Woo looks to the East

To this day the term Trojan Horse resonates with most Europeans and Americans. Generations of schoolchildren in the West have grown up hearing of the Trojan War, and how Troy was defeated thanks to a wooden horse. What is less well known is that China has its own period of history every bit as heroic and poetic as the age of Achilles, Hector and Ajax.

The Three Kingdoms period – which dates from 220 to 280 AD – saw China split in three. The kingdoms of Wei, Wu and Shu emerged, and their wars produced a slew of heroes and strategists that were captured in verse by China’s own Homer, Luo Guanzhong. Now a blockbuster movie is rekindling interest in those heroes, and breaking box office records.

The film’s director, John Woo, will be no stranger to most Western cinema-goers. Hong Kong-born Woo is well known for his elaborately choreographed action movies, and worked with the likes of John Travolta in Broken Arrow and Tom Cruise in Mission Impossible 2.

His own take on the Three Kingdom’s period focuses on the battle of Red Cliff, a chess-like tactical struggle fought between the arrogant Cao Cao of Wei, and an alliance of Wu and Shu. At five hours, Woo’s epic has been released as two films. The first movie debuted in July and the sequel hit Chinese screens in January. At a combined cost of $80 million, the Chinese-language flicks are the biggest budget movies in Asian cinema history.

Red Cliff: Part 1 opened to critical acclaim in the summer with the Associated Press noting it represented, “Woo’s triumphant return to Chinese film after 16 years in Hollywood.” The Korea Times agreed: “Finally, Asian cinema sees the birth of a movie with the grandeur in both budget and inspiration of epic franchises like The Lord of the Rings.”

The sequel is even better. It feels breathless in comparison to the first. As the final credits roll, it is hard to believe 141 minutes have passed.

Red Cliff: Part 1, pulled in Rmb312 million at the box office, putting it second only to Titanic, which earned Rmb360 million in Chinese cinemas. The producers of Red Cliff: Part 2 are forecasting it could gross Rmb400 million ($58.4 million) or more.

This is more than just a movie – it is an ‘event’ – with a Chinese classic given the Hollywood treatment thanks to Woo. The computer-generated images of Cao Cao’s fleet, in fact, recall the scene in Troy when the Greek armada sets sail.

The point: Woo made this film as much for audiences outside China as within. The characters and events of the Three Kingdoms deserve a wider audience, for they showcase the Chinese at their best: innovative, wise, and in touch with the natural world. One of the chief protagonists of Red Cliff is Zhuge Liang. Few in the West have heard of Zhuge (pronounced Zhu-guh), but you would be hard pressed to come up with a more ingenious military strategist. As the Red Cliff story illustrates, true ingenuity is to overcome superior military forces through intelligence, strategy and the advantages of the natural landscape.

This is a Chinese film that deserves to be watched – and preferably in-front of a big screen rather than squeezed into an airline seat. It has a scale the likes of which is rare: no Hollywood movie could field as many extras for its battle scenes. That makes it an accessible way to learn more about China and its rich history. Red Cliff will be released in the US and Europe in March, when according to Variety, a truncated version of the two movies will be released as a single film.

Interestingly enough, while Red Cliff is likely to impress Western audiences, there has been some criticism of it in China. This is not surprising. Woo’s movie takes some license with aspects of the tales and changes parts of the plot for cinematic effect. It also injects some humour, by occasionally switching from more classical speaking styles to modern-day colloquialisms. But when a movie grosses Rmb1.5 million per hour in its opening day, you can afford to politely ignore the grumblings of the critics.

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