by HELEN GEIB
The Chinese historical epic Red Cliff is one story told in two parts, each part a full length movie (think The Lord of the Rings). Part 1 was released in China in July 2008 and Part 2 six months later in January, 2009, to huge popular and critical success. It was made for the- for a Chinese production- staggering cost of $80 million, hardly a paltry budget even by Hollywood standards. It’s easy to see on the screen where the money went: the movie has a colossal production design, glorious costumes, awe-inspiring battle sequences, cast of thousands… everything you want to see in a historical epic. It also has a great director in John Woo and a stellar cast headed by Tony Leung, Takeshi Kaneshiro, and Zhou Wei.
The film is an account of a decisive battle fought in 208 AD, at the end of the Han Dynasty and leading into the period of the Three Kingdoms. It is historically accurate within the limitations of the murky historical record. Much more is known of the real Battle of Red Cliffs and its political context than one might have expected thanks to the near-contemporary 3rd century The Records of the Three Kingdoms, a historical chronicle collecting three regional histories. Red Cliff the film is based on the Records, supplemented with elements drawn from the massively influential 14th century popular novel Romance of the Three Kingdoms and the filmmakers’ original additions to the story.
The aggressor is Cao Cao (Zhang Fengyi), power-hungry prime minister and general of the Han Empire. He is opposed by regional rulers Liu Bei (You Yong) and Sun Quan, who are fighting for survival and join forces in an alliance of expediency. Other prominent characters are Liu Bei’s military strategist Zhuge Liang (Kaneshiro) and Sun Quan’s sister Shangxiang (Zhou), his general and adviser Zhou Yu (Leung), and the general’s wife Xiao Qiao (Lin Chi-ling). All the main characters are vividly drawn and memorable; so are a number of supporting characters, like Liu Bei’s three generals with their distinctive fighting styles and equally distinctive personalities. The battle of Red Cliff and the events leading up to it are the stage for their individual stories of honor and courage, friendship and rivalry, ambition and betrayal, love and lust.
An abridged version of Red Cliff that cut the film almost exactly in half was released theatrically in the US. Both it and the unabridged, two-part film were released today on DVD and Blu-ray. (The releases are misleadingly subtitled: the abridged version has become the “Theatrical Version” and the full-length film has become the “International Director’s Cut.”) I saw the abridged version in the theater; between that or nothing, the choice was clear. And in fact, the abridged film on the big screen was wonderful. The cuts did nothing to diminish the spectacular aspects of the production and were made with care to keep the plot flowing smoothly. It was evident that at least one important subplot and a lot of character interaction were missing, but it was still terrifically entertaining. However, between the abridged version or the full-length movie, the choice is equally clear. Why settle for half a movie when the real thing is right there for the taking?
A lot has to go when you cut a movie in half. One of the things that went was most of Shangxiang’s screen time. Several prominent supporting characters had their roles noticeably reduced; one was cut out of the picture entirely. Many scenes that survived the cut did so only with numerous small cuts that did not destroy the sense of the scene, but did lessen its complexity and sometimes its dramatic impact. The cumulative effect was to lessen the complexity and dramatic impact of the film as a whole.
Comparing the original opening to its abridged version illustrates the narrative richness that was lost with the innumerable “minor” cuts. The evocative credits (also cut) lead into a stage-setting sequence at the imperial court. The young emperor, who looks to be not much out of his teens, is sitting on the throne of a large outdoor hall, flanked by row after row of old, silent, unmoving court officials. He catches himself nodding off. A songbird flies into the hall and lands nearby. Delighted, he whistles and calls it to land in his open palm. His childlike expressions as he plays with the bird further emphasize the youth and inexperience betrayed by his appearance and posture. Cao Cao appears in the hall without warning and demands approval for his proposed military expedition. Frightened, the bird hops out of the emperor’s hand to land a few feet away. The bird chirps and flutters in distress in a reflection of the emperor’s darting eyes and hesitant speech. Cao Cao responds to his emperor’s plea that the army and the people need rest before the next campaign by calling on him to remember who it was that put him on the throne. The bird flies away as the thoroughly intimidated emperor makes the proclamation. He is the bird, acquiescence his means of escape. The abridged version to this point is the same – except the songbird doesn’t appear.