The short form would be that John Woo rediscovered himself in returning to China, but that really doesn't capture what's going on. Woo made his name with such beautiful, dynamic, and surprisingly thoughtful urban crime films as Hard Boiled and The Killer -- pop culture with soul -- then made his way to America for films like Broken Arrow, Face/Off, and Mission Impossible II. Pop culture, still -- with bigger budgets and bigger stars, granted -- but with something missing: Even when Woo touched on the themes that first earned him the love of film fans, it was clear that there was a subtle but critical dissipation of that all-important soul.
So Woo is now back in China. But instead of a full return to familiar, city-grit turf (asphalt?), he's leveraging his Hollywood-nurtured clout and turned his attention to epic adventure. The result is Red Cliff, a mammoth (the original Chinese version ran five hours, we're getting a version that clocks in at somewhere in the neighborhood of two and a half) historical drama based on a fourteenth century novel about two kingdoms who join military forces to repel the onslaught of a usurper general (Zhang Fengyi). And aside from the return of Tony Leung to the Woo fold as a military strategist, and the appearance of Zhao Wei in a very Tsui Harkian role as a female warrior who goes undercover in drag to scout out the opposing forces (other stars in the large cast include Takeshi Kaneshiro as another key strategist, You Yong and Chang Chen as the rival kings turned allies, and Chiling Lin as what amounts to a Chinese Helen of Troy), you can tell Woo is regaining his form in how the lead protagonists form bonds that are less military expediency than they are full-on brotherhood, and the sheer energy and beauty of the production (maybe I'm overdramatizing, but a CG sequence of a dove -- John Woo, remember? -- overflying the opposing camps looks as much like Woo's creative heart taking flight as it does a neat way to transition from one locale to another).
I was kind of expecting that having faced/down Tom Cruise, Woo would present a rather battle-hardened front for the press. Instead, he was quiet, polite, and rather self-effacing -- which only reinforced my original respect for him. We got to talk about how one brings down to earth a tale originally told at a time when heroes, as a matter of course, were ascribed supernatural powers, and how his sojourn in Tinsel Town positioned him to push the Chinese film industry into more ambitious realms. Click on the player below to hear the interview.
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