John Woo’s poetic and soulful movies are one of the highpoints of action cinema of the last two and a half decades. Introduced to Western audiences in the late eighties with his Better Tomorrow series and the astounding The Killer and A Bullet in the Head, Woo is a master choreographer of action and movement whose emotionally-driven themes of the loner, betrayal and solitude suggest a funky mélange of Douglas Sirk, Nicholas Ray and (especially) Jean-Pierre Melville.
Woo has spent much of the last decade and a half working in Hollywood, on both ambitious personal projects like Windtalkers to studio assignments such as Mission: Impossible II and Paycheck. His Hollywood period is highly uneven; my personal favorite is Face/Off, the most violent of his works, but also the one most reflective of his personality and view of human behavior and motivation. There remains in much of his Hollywood work a sense of compromise and withholding.
Red Cliff is Woo’s first narrative feature in six years. The most expensive film ever made in China, at some eighty million, the movie was shown there in a two-part, nearly five hour version. Woo’s “international version,” clocking in just under two and a half hours, debuted in New York last week and begins opening in other markets this week.
The story is based on a seminal period in Chinese history, the early third century battle of Red Cliffs, staged on the south bank of Yangtze River, during the crucial transition of the end of the Han Dynasty and the Three Kingdoms. Set during the particularly vicious and violent history of warlords and political operatives fighting to consolidate power and control, the movie is a large scale entwining of the political and personal. Chen Shou’s novel is the jumping off point, though Woo has said he has tried to rely more on the historical record.
The five-hour version, which I’ve not seen, is said to be a much more satisfying work. Even so, this is the Woo that I find the most exciting, an artist and warrior who never fears going too far. The action is grounded in a delirious emotionalism.
Woo’s American-cut played the Chicago Film festival last month, where I had a chance to talk with him.
Light sensitive: How did you arrive at making two versions?
John Woo: That was the plan before we started shooting. Since the Asian audience is very familiar with this history and all the characters, we can afford to have much time developing the characters and the relationships between them. For the Western audience, since they’re not as familiar with the history that made us focus more on the storyline and the key characters. That’s why we decided to make two versions. In many ways it’s still the same movie. It’s just that the international version is tighter and more focused.
Light sensitive: You have talked about this as a dream project. What makes this story so personally resonant?
John Woo: I grew up with this part of history. I grew up with the story, and there were so many heroes that I admire. I’ve been thinking of making this movie for more than thirty years. It’s a very challenging project. I was so fascinated by the theme of a smaller army defeating a much stronger and more powerful enemy through a combination of teamwork, courage, intelligence and love. The battle of Red Cliff was a very famous battle in Chinese history.
I must say it’s every director’s dream. I always wanted to make a movie like Lawrence of Arabia, Spartacus, Seven Samurai; for so many years we couldn’t get it budgeted or the technology, but now we have the money and the technology.
Light sensitive: In Hong Kong, you didn’t always have the resources. In Hollywood, you didn’t always have the freedom you needed. This seems like the best of both of your worlds.
John Woo: It just feels like I’m going back to the old days; everything is much more simple. I want to make a movie called Red Cliff. They said, Okay, let’s do it. I didn’t have to take any meetings or any advice. I just shut the door and did my own work. We had support from the government; we had 700-1,500 soldiers working on the set almost every day. I can really make a movie in my own vision.
Even though it is a historical based story, I had the intention of making it into a film. I realized there are so many frustrations in the world, quite a few young people in Asia, people giving up their lives, I could have the freedom to change it into an encouraging movie. What we need is to work together to solve all kinds of problems. The more positive tone was not from the book.
Light sensitive: Did you feel more liberated working this way?
John Woo: I think so. Since I couldn’t get any better scripts after Paycheck, I just decided I should try something else. I should try to make my dream project. But I still miss Hollywood. Everything is so well organized and professional.
Light sensitive: How has digital technology altered your way of working?
John Woo: Fortunately we were working [with very good technicians from the] United States. We worked with the action supervisor Craig Hayes. He was very involved, and he was studying this part of history. When we designed the battle sequence, he gave us ideas and I tried to make everything work. The Chinese and Korean crews were also deeply involved. The turtle formation, for instance, was my idea. We used [computer graphic imagery] to add more people, like adding more people to the burning ships. Audiences couldn’t really tell which was live action and which was CG. We combined them. We built twenty-five ships, and we used a combination of real ships and digital effects.
Light sensitive: This film is a strong example of your aesthetic, the idea of action as pure emotion.
John Woo: In my films it’s mostly about character and emotion driving the action. I’ve never been interested in action just for action. I try to find something that gets meaning from the action. In Red Cliff, we had three major battle scenes; but they all involved character and a very strong message. For the final battle, I tried to stress that in war, there are no winners. The human message [of the film], about the futility of war, an anti-war movie, is pretty clear. When we illustrate the turtle formation, it’s funny because it’s tied to the characters. It’s not just abstract.
Light sensitive: Is it true your next project is an American remake of Melville’s Le samurai?
John Woo: Hopefully it’s going to be one of my next projects. We’re working on the script and the copyright. I tried to remake this movie for years. It would be an American film, and we have financing from Japan. Now it’s just in the script process.
Light sensitive: The dominant manner that our film past is preserved or looked at now is on DVD. Many of your key Hong Kong films are either not available here or are circulate in very poor transfers. What is the status of so many of those films?
John Woo: I don’t know much about that. Once in a while I try to get my original version of A Bullet in the Head out and do my director’s cut. After I checked, the Hong Kong lab never saved any of the extra negatives or scenes. They just threw it away like garbage. That’s what they did for all the Hong Kong films, so there’s no way to do the director’s cut. It’s one of my favorite movies. I really wish people could see the original version, two hours and forty minutes long of A Bullet in the Head. So many people love that movie.