If we’re to believe the military general in Red Cliff 2 who muses, “The times makes the hero,” then somebody ought to tell Magnet Releasing, the American distributors of Red Cliff (John Woo’s records-shattering period war epic set in 208 AD), that they’re the villain. Just like British distributors before them, Magnet is releasing Woo’s five hour, two-part epic as a single film in America, callously lopping off 140 minutes of footage because they simultaneously want to cater to a broad audience as well as to Woo’s established fanbase. The times, it seems, when “Asian cinema” is sold as either exotic genre fodder for geeks or high-end Art for the culturally advanced, are against Magnet.
With its sweeping pageantry and spectacularly choreographed battle scenes, Red Cliff falls neatly into both categories, making the temptation to sell it both as a cultural event and tempting junk food understandable though hardly commendable. In doing so, Magnet is only cutting out the legs from underneath either of their respective target niche markets. (South Korean, Singaporean and Japanese distributors released the film in two parts, suggesting that the “international cut” is only tempting to Whitey.) And while the ghettoization of foreign film in America is hardly new news, it particularly reeks here.
The “international cut” Magnet is releasing, probably pre-arranged by its overseas handlers at Summit Entertainment, excises approximately half of Woo’s film. This is infinitely worse than photoshopping two guns into the hands of an actor on a DVD cover or retitling a film with a misleading moniker. This is out-and-out disrespect for a much-vaunted filmmaker’s vision. More directly, it undercuts the grandeur of Woo’s hyper-expensive set pieces—which amply show off what he spent the biggest budget in Chinese and even Asian film history on—ostensibly for the sake of making the film more accessible. After all, mutilating a film is usually the best way to get butts in seats, especially niche market viewers expecting to enjoy a director’s unique vision.
Magnet’s move to distribute the mangled “international cut” is particularly disheartening considering that they’re preventing their audience from getting swept up in the film’s countless asides, all of which tie into the film’s main theme of fraternal unity, but in their own sweet time. In that respect, Red Cliff 2 is a bit more uniform in its languid presentation of the various sub-plots that branch out from the film’s central conflict between General Cao Cao (Fengyi Zhang) and a rag-tag team of leaders of the Chinese Southlands, including Lui Bei (Yong You), Zhou Yu (Tony Leung Chiu Wai, a role which was originally given to Chow Yun-Fat) and Zhuge Liang (Takeshi Kaneshiro).
Who these men are individually is unimportant; what matters is that they serve as a magnification of Woo’s central fixation with a utilitarian-minded group of macho Davids fighting an over-sized Goliath with an Imperial mandate. Our Southland heroes periodically lose hope in the face of such overwhelming odds, but always manage to pull through, only momentarily blanching in the face of Cao Cao’s superior numbers. They serve as crucial reminders to the viewers that while the Southlanders are continually smug, they are fighting up a steep incline.
Though both parts of Woo’s original film mostly serve to amplify his central pre-occupations (honor among lordly thieves: “No one has ever given us respect. Who cares? So long as we respect our selves.”), Red Cliff 2 goes a little farther in complicating them than the cleaner and probably more rewatchable Red Cliff. This is most immediately apparent in the way that Woo depicts women. Before Red Cliff 2, most of Woo’s films were sausage fests with a few key supporting roles from female boosters. Here those cheerleaders enjoy, if you’ll pardon the expression, meatier roles: Sun Shangxiang (Wei Zhao) spends much of the film cross-dressing and gathering intelligence from the inside of Cao Cao’s army and Xiao Qiao (Chiling Lin), Zhou Yu’s woman, gets to distract Cao Cao with a lecture on the importance of preparing tea just before the Southlanders launch a surprise attack. Hos can finally be bros, a major shift in Woo’s limited worldview.
More important however is the way that Woo humanizes Cao Cao’s army. In the face of what he presents as certain defeat, one of Cao Cao’s generals tells the enemy soldiers that they should all be sent home, but instead, the men rally together with a chant of “Victory!” Right before they’re slaughtered by the Southlanders, we even get to see them toss their last letters home over their shoulders, a sign that even the bad guy grunts get to look honorable before they get decimated (Or, as Zhou Yu declares, “There is no victor here”).
Still, what will bring crowds in to see Red Cliff and Red Cliff 2—both available at your local Chinatown boutique or from Yesasia.com—is seeing him do his thing on a much broader canvas. The scope of Woo’s film cannot be discounted as each tableau of violence and most of the film’s pensive conversations feel like they’re perpetually expanding. Woo has always needed more room to let his characters’ big ideas breathe but usually the commercial constraints of the genres he’s worked in made that impossible (are we ever gonna see the fabled 3 1/2-hour cut of Mission: Impossible II? I hope so).
The ending of Red Cliff 2 comes as a bit of a downer because it, like the rest of the film, is not really conclusive. But that’s what makes Woo’s sensibility as an action choreographer so stirring. The second fight in Red Cliff is especially captivating because it just builds and builds and builds until it somehow just stops. Subverting the flow of these scenes is not only counterintuitive to Woo’s fans’ egos but, more importantly, to the films’ essential character. Sometimes, more is more.
Simon Abrams writes about comics, books, and movies for the Comics Journal, the L Magazine, the New York Press, and Slant Magazine. Since last year, he’s been obsessively keeping a film journal where he writes down something about every film he’s seen.