Jun 30, 2008|
Category IIB. In an ideal world, this film would spell the end of the big-budget Chinese historical war epic. Armed with an unprecedented US$80 million, John Woo has done the best that can be done for this unwieldy genre. Which is to say, he’s given it a single somewhat passable film, after a long line of lumbering catastrophes that have dragged the genre’s name through the mud like a horse pulling a fallen warrior by the neck. If this is the most a director like Woo can make of the war epic with the biggest budget in Asian cinema history, let’s hang up our swords, halberds and over-embroidered armor and leave it here, which is as good as it gets.
To be sure, Woo’s tale of the massive battle that established the lines of the ancient Three Kingdoms is certainly a cut above recent war epic contenders such as Peter Chan’s “Warlords” (Daniel Lee’s “Three Kingdoms” doesn’t even deserve to be called a contender, and let’s not get started on “An Empress and the Warriors”). He manages to add a smidgen of complexity to the renderings of cunning strategists Zhuge Liang (Takeshi Kaneshiro) and Zhou Yu (Tony Leung), and the battle scenes are more visceral and more cleverly concocted than most. Yet after watching the twentieth spear fly through the twentieth throat, even THAT gory appeal begins to wane. Once again, the problem lies squarely on the shoulders of what must be the most cumbersome genre in cinema history. It’s simply impossible to weave fluidly between scenes of 100,000 actors at a time (according to Woo) and scenes of intimate detail between too many pivotal characters.
It’s a shame that Woo’s return to Chinese (though not Hong Kong) film after 16 years is a letdown. Yet this isn’t the last of the hyper-indulgent war epics, and not just because it’s the new flavor of the decade for the young market up north. For the second part of “Red Cliff” is still to come. And of course, it’s quite possible that the master has saved the best for last; that the ultimate, titular battle may in fact reverse our prejudices and have us baying for more monster-budgeted bloodbaths to come. No doubt die-hard fans everywhere are reflecting on their idol’s previous miracles, and praying dearly for a better tomorrow.