"I'd never get used to the meetings. I hate talk. I don't know how to talk."
John Woo was describing the difference between working in Asia and in Hollywood when he made a point to laugh at his own inability to adapt. It's not an alien trait in creative types, who are typically more adept at invention than negotiation. Though he seemed reluctant to criticize the American film industry, Woo had nothing good to say about it, either. One only had to look at the dip in quality in the director's filmography to suspect that he never fully adjusted.
Now having taken a productive six-year respite, he returns to America with a film called Red Cliff, brought back from his Chinese sojourn. It shouldn't surprise any of his fans that it shows a long-awaited return to form.
Seventeen years ago, John Woo was king of his genre. After a string of very successful and beloved gangster films, he made one last film in Hong Kong before departing to America. That film was Hard Boiled, a film that went on to inspire and influence countless modern action movies and fellow directors, now considered to be Woo's masterpiece. Compared to the adulation of that film, Woo's American output since had not been met in kind.
His first try was the Jean-Claude Van Damme cheesefest Hard Target back in 1993. Immediately, Woo was hampered by management concerns and a work schedule tighter than what he was accustomed to. His trademark screen violence proved to be a constant problem. Already limited on the set by a nervous studio's set of rules, Hard Target still received an NC-17 rating from the MPAA anyway (a timecoded workprint of this cut has been making rounds in the bootleg circuit ever since).
In 2003, Woo released his last film, the poorly received—both critically and commercially—Philip K. Dick adaptation Paycheck starring Ben Affleck, at a time when public reception towards Affleck was rickety, thanks to his tabloid-feeding relationship with Jennifer Lopez. Hollywood's star-driven business is something Woo has always had trouble submitting to—he reportedly clashed often with the ego-nurturing Van Damme on Hard Target and didn't understand why an actor would be given that amount of control—perhaps contributing significantly to his departure.
Rather than making excuses for his misfit, he seemed to exhibit a curiosity towards the divergent practices of two equally striving industries.
"The director is the star in Asia, especially China. The director is everything. Even for the audience, when they're going to watch a movie, they would say, 'Who's the director?' This is so different from [the US]," he said, perhaps with a hint of pride.
Red Cliff is in many ways a welcome change from the direction he was taking, which saw him churning out mediocre assembly line action movies. Partly an adaptation of the "Battle of Red Cliff" portion from China's most popular text, the historically-based Romance of Three Kingdoms novel, Red Cliff is an epic project in every sense of the word and became the most expensive Asian-financed film ever made. Despite the massive scope, Woo appeared more relaxed when talking about the Chinese production, calling their approval process "easy."
"I just walk into the office and I can go, 'I want to make a movie called Red Cliff.' And they say, 'Okay! Let's do it!' I don't even need a complete script. I just let them know what kind of movie I want to make," he explained.
"I don't need to take notes from anyone. I don't need to take any meetings. I just close my door and work with my team and do my own thing. That's simple. Of course, everybody's got to love the project. They also have so much confidence in me, unlike Hollywood. In Hollywood, it's hard to set up a project. Sometimes, it's even hard to make a decision. There's always so many voices. So many people telling you what they want you to do."
Starring mega-star Tony Leung, who Woo directed before in Hard Boiled, Red Cliff was originally released in Asian countries as a two-parter, with a combined total running time of almost five hours. The first part was released in July of last year and the conclusion was released the following January of this year, to healthy critical praise and box office return. In countries like South Korea, the first part beat out that other July blockbuster behemoth at the time, The Dark Knight. In mainland China, this was the movie that broke Titanic's record.
For the release in Western countries, Woo and his editor spent months shaving both films down to one 2.5 hour movie. That's 132 some minutes left strewn on the cutting room floor.
"The Asian audience are all familiar with this part of history and the characters, so we could have much longer time developing the characters and sewing the relationships between them," said Woo. "However, the American audience, since they're not as familiar, we've decided to focus on the main storyline and the key characters. We've planned it to do it that way before we started shooting."
To help understand the historical context, the Western version opens with an English voiceover narration quickly summarizing the conflict of the war—which boiled down to, as hostilities among men often go, the desire to win a beautiful woman—and who its participants are (American gamers would probably recognize some of the characters from the Dynasty Warriors video games). It then jumps head first into a stirring battle scene and doesn't let up from there.
Woo took out many of the side characters, reducing them to simple but extraordinary warriors that make their mark with their actions in battle. He also took out all the subplots like troop defection and a love story between a princess and an enemy soldier.
He didn't cut any of the action, of course.
It leaves the film pretty much a focused war narrative, lobbing one strategy after the next like a dangerous game of tennis. Such a move risk the dumbing down of a film, but in this case, it only keeps Red Cliff at a steady pace. While the story is jumpy and the dialogue often filled with exposition (which is to be expected, as they had to summarize a lot), most of the film is vintage Woo: hard-hitting violence weaved together with his heightened sense of emotional drama, as seen in his trendsetting Heroic Bloodshed movies.
"I always care [about] why they fight. What is it they're fighting for? What is the message within the fight? What is the story in that fight? Just like [Seven Samurai director Akira] Kurosawa... He can make a great action sequence, but deep inside all the action, he had a lot of human story," Woo said in an inviting tone. "That's what I usually do. Even though I made movies like The Killer or Face/Off, they're all fighting for a reason."
For Red Cliff, Woo didn't want to do martial arts battles. He wanted the fights to be more realistic. Well, so he said. The action sequences are still filled with Woo's euphoric fight choreography and the "cool" moments we've come to expect from him. There aren't any flying or overly fantastical moves, but the realism is certainly not ironclad.
"Even though I'm shooting all the sword fight scenes or [shooting] arrow scenes, I feel like I'm still making gun battle sequences," he admitted. "That's why while you're watching, when you see them carefully, you'll realize that the way I'm using arrows and spears and the flying daggers, [they're] pretty much like machine guns."
A particularly memorable battle—arguably the best sequence in the film—shows the good guys using a Tortoise Formation strategy to trap their enemies. The tactic involved the soldiers using their big shields to form a giant maze in the shape of a tortoise shell, trafficking enemy combatants to their deaths.
That one sequence alone took them two and a half months to shoot.
Woo praised the Chinese government's support of the project, particularly in filming the battles. "We had real soldiers on the set. We had 700 to 1500 soldiers. Almost everyday, they're playing all the warriors, they're the fighters," he revealed. The rest used CGI, done by the talented and San Francisco-based visual effects company The Orphanage, which had since sadly closed shop.
Almost two decades later, having endured the American studio system and given subpar material to work with, Woo proved that he's still got a pretty sharp eye for what makes an action movie tick. The excitement is not in the violence of the actions themselves, but in the motivations of the participants. The rest are just movements.
"For gun battles, I could easily take the musical as a reference. When I'm choreographing the gun battle scenes, I feel like I'm making dancing scenes. The beauty of body movements, shooting two guns and flipping through the air, it's very much like a musical."
The secret, however, is something basic.
"It's got to have a good story. Otherwise, it's just fighting."