John Woo's Redemption

After languishing in Hollywood for several years, John Woo’s finally redeemed himself by tackling an expansive historical epic in Chinese. In Asia, Red Cliff was released in two parts – the first in 2009, the second a year later – and then on DVD and Blu-ray, while the rest of the world was apparently offered a shorter cut fashioned by the producers (including Woo) to keep the length and ‘all that unfamiliar cultural material’ to a minimum, and leaving the big battle scenes as highlights.

This isn’t a new concept, but winnowing down a nearly 5-hour epic to around 2.5 hours is, quite frankly, madness, because you will notice the seams. One can admire the battle scenes, but then there’s the characters who probably zip and in a out of the uneven narrative, leaving little impact on the viewer in spite of the obvious scope inherent to the tale of two former rival powers allying themselves against an aggressive northern power, with everything coming to a head in one location, Red Cliff.

Full disclosure: I haven’t seen the shorter U.S. cut, and don’t want to, because after seeing the longer version on Blu-ray (already out there in Asia), one can’t imagine the story impacting the viewer without the character backgrounds. They’re not dull, the ancient Chinese culture isn’t some complicated, impenetrable thing, and the length of each part isn’t a handicap, because the beautiful editing gives the illusion of a shorter running time, which only two movies have ever managed to pull off for my eyes: The Right Stuff (1983) and Heat (1995) are ‘virtual’ tow hour movies told in a three hour ‘real-time’ length.

Moreover, I think the producers forgot something vital: this is an epic historical movie about war and its impact on the regal and common people of one land. That’s a familiar narrative that’s cross-cultural in print, film, and TV formats, so the audience to which the film is being (ideally) aimed knows what to expect: length, diverse characters, and as a view, a partial responsibility to think independently; if you can figure things out based on known character patterns and familiar conflicts, then the filmmakers have done their job.

Red Cliff is so good, that when it’s over, there’s a sense of loss because the characters with whom you’ve cinematically lived with have left the building, and you’re back in chilly 2010, where the concerns of the day include a Balloon Boy, some schmuck who tried to blow up a plane by packing explosives near his genetically worthless crown jewels, and (in Canada) an ego-maniacal Prime Minister who decided to shut down the entire parliamentary system for 2 months because he felt the government needed ‘a reset.’

(More on that grotesque abuse of democratic power this weekend, though suffice it to say, the Governor General should be thrown out, since she gave the official okay to this idiocy for the second time in a year.)

Magnolia Home Entertainment will release both the shorter and longer cuts March 30th on DVD and BR, although I can’t imagine fans of the director, the historical event, nor the film genre will want the shorter cut. There are no specific details whether any extras will be on the release, but given BR can hold a lot of information, the BR edition should really include both cuts for posterity. The only oddity among the details on is the 1.66:1 ratio, which I hope is a misprint, since the Asian BR preserves the film’s 2.35:1 ‘scope ratio.

It is unfortunate, though, that the original two-parter didn’t get even a limited theatrical engagement in select markets in Region 1 land, because this film is meant for the big screen. The movie was arguably mishandled by aiming it at a broad market instead of niche, even though that niche is quite big.

Toronto, for example, has a huge Asian population. That means a pre-existing and ongoing penetration of Asian culture in the city’s multicultural make-up (food, film, art, etc.) made Toronto (if not the GTA as a whole) an ideal target city for the long version.

We have indie theatres that would’ve welcomed the opportunity to present the film.

When the Japanese shocker Battle Royal (2000) was screened by the Cinematheque several years ago, it sold out fast because there was an audience who knew what the film was, and why it was special. With Red Cliff, there has been at least 12 months of gradual publicity that’s migrated from overseas to foreign film fans about ‘a big epic’ that’s worth seeing.

In any event, I’ve uploaded a review of the long version, since it’s finally making its way to North America before spring. Besides, maybe the Cinematheque might offer up the film for a limited run, as was done for epics such as Visconti’s The Leopard (three hours), or Fassbinder’s Berlin Alexanderplatz (uh,. 13.5 hours, though it was originally made for German TV).



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