Friday, April 04, 2014

Running Out of Karma: John Woo's Red Cliff

Running Out of Karma is my on-going series on Johnnie To and Hong Kong cinema. Here is an index.

Five years after his last American film, 2003's Philip K. Dick adaptation Paycheck, and a long, troubled and expensive shoot plagued by last minute casting changes, John Woo finally released the first half of his epic two-part film Red Cliff. It proved to be a critical and commercial success (at least in it's full version, the butchered American release fared less well), breaking box office records across Asia and gathering a plethora of award nominations. To date it's Woo's last film, his only other projects in the ten years since his return to Hong Kong being an advisory co-director role for Su Chao-pin's Reign of Assassins and The Crossing, due to be released sometime in 2014.

Red Cliff was released in two parts, in July, 2008 and then January of 2009, totaling about five hours of running time. The full version is widely available on Blu-Ray (look for the "International Version Part I & Part II" disc) and that's how I watched it, in two sections over one 24-hour period a couple weeks ago. I'll split this review into two parts as well.

Red Cliff Part One

This first half is almost entirely set up, with most of the 2 1/2 hours devoted to Takeshi Kaneshiro's Zhuge Liang convincing the leaders of the Southern Wu Kingdom (Chang Chen as the King, Sun Quan, and Tony Leung as his top general, Zhou Yu) to join the rebellion against the evil Prime Minister Cao Cao, a brilliant general who has for all intents and purposes usurped the Emperor and declared war on anyone who resists his dictates. Based on the account of late Han Dynasty (circa 200 AD) historical events depicted in the 14th Century Romance of the Three Kingdoms, one of the Four Great Classical Novels of Chinese literature, Woo adds a degree of melodramatic motivation to what in the book (I've read the first half, which includes the events surrounding the Battle of Red Cliff, but my memory is a bit hazy, as usual) is more of a straight recitation of action, preceding as it does by several centuries the modern notion of the psychological novel.

Most bothersome in this re-envisioning is the implication that Cao Cao is fighting this whole war for the sake of a woman, Zhou Yu's wife Xiaoqiao, played by Taiwanese supermodel Lin Chi-ling in her first film role. Woo lingers on Lin and Leung together, being affectionate and loving and having steamy candlelit sex, as if trying to inspire the same jealousy in the audience that his Cao Cao must be feeling. It's unclear at this point if this storyline is going to end up being ridiculous, or an interesting Helen of Troy-type addition to the historical narrative. There are a couple interesting scenes with Cao Cao and a prostitute who looks like Xiaoqiao, kind of a Vertigo thing going on there hinting at Cao Cao's possible madness. Better realized motivations are Sun Quan's feelings of inadequacy before the memory of his more warlike older brother and father (resolved as all the best emotional crises are, with a tiger hunt) and Zhuge's fascination with Sun's sister, the wannabe warrior Sun Shangxiang, played by Zhao Wei. Subtlety of emotion or motivation has never been one of Woo's strengths, so I don't know that packing his war movie with so much of it was a wise idea.

Woo's on surer footing with the relationship between Zhuge and Zhou, two men used to being the smartest in any room in which they find themselves, their relationship is one of deep respect and rivalry. They're often seem to be the only two guys who actually know what's going on, and their private jokes and shared wavelength is a far more compelling romance than Cao Cao's blunted desire. Woo frames Kaneshiro and Leung closely together, his camera roving from one's side of the screen to other's, uniting them in their shifting one-upmanship.

We only get a couple of action scenes in Part One. It opens with the retreat of Zhuge Liang's boss Liu Bei, the noble anti-Cao Cao leader, which provides a chance for each of his three superheroic generals to cut down dozens of extras. Part One climaxes with the first skirmish of the battle proper, as the Allied forces ambush Cao Cao's cavalry in a neat demonstration of animal-based tactics as Woo explores the intricacy and violence of 3rd Century warfare. The infantry draw the small cavalry troop into a trap, with intricately coordinated movements of their shield wall isolating the various horsemen, who proceed to be cut down, first by spears, then by the generals (following the tradition of martial arts narratives, where the more powerful the person, the better their fighting skills). In the end, even Zhou takes part, Tony Leung throwing himself into the fray with the enthusiasm of one who actually knows what he's doing. Only Zhuge Liang doesn't take part: he's an intellectual; strictly an advisor, not a fighter.

The Battle of Red Cliff took place in the early 200s, roughly contemporaneous with the events in Ridley Scott's Gladiator and that film, along with Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings provides a clear inspiration for the CGI-enabled epic scale of Woo's production. Long pull-out shots reveal hundreds of artificial ships as Cao Cao's navy makes its way down the Yangtze; phony (or certainly at least digitally retouched) landscapes emphasize the beauty of the South and the need to preserve it from Northern aggression. Judicious use of digitally slowed and sped up motion (as in Tsui Hark's 2005 Seven Swords) liven up the action's long unbroken takes. Here the comparison with Gladiator is important, as Scott smears his action into blurry, swish pan and quick cut nothingness while Woo keeps everything crisp and organized, with overhead shots orienting us spatially while simultaneously making apparent the tactical ideas behind the coordinated troop movements painstakingly designed by Zhuge and Zhou.

Red Cliff Part Two

The second half of the film opens with a quick recap of the first, then throws us right into the action. Cao Cao has brought his army down the Yangtze and taken up position across the river from the Wu fortress at Red Cliff. With the help of two defecting southerners, Cao Cao has assembled a massive navy to supplement his cavalry and infantry. Here the differences between Southern and Northern China and the kinds of wars they fight becomes relevant. Southern China is river country, marshy and lush. Northern China is more desert-like, with vast flat plains between mountain ranges. Sothern transportation is on boats, Northern on horseback. There's a cliche about the different styles of kung fu that developed in the two haves of the country, with the Northerners favoring a foot-based style with leaps and kicks, designed to dislodge horsemen, while the Southerners came up with a fist-based style, utilizing the strong arm muscles earned through a lifetime of rowing up and down rivers. Cao Cao's Northern Army is used to cavalry attacks, they have no knowledge of naval tactics and his men are plagued by seasickness (not to mention typhoid and various other illnesses the Northerners have no developed immunity to). But the Southerners are not only literally on their home turf but have the advantage of fighting their kind of battle. Given this, the fact that they are outnumbered approximately 800,000 to 50,000 doesn't quite concern them as much as you'd think.

Attempting to even the odds even further, as much as they can before the battle begins, Zhuge Liang and Zhou Yu make a wager. Again lost in their own world (Woo closes in very close on Kaneshiro and Leung, facing each other on opposite sides of the screen, their faces unnaturally close with all the other generals and advisors blurred out in the background) they challenge each other with a pair of impossible tasks. Zhuge must produce 100,000 arrows in three days while Zhou must somehow separate Cao Cao from his naval commanders. Failure to deliver means death. They succeed of course, but one's subterfuge is certainly more clever than the other's.

While the first half of the film was a lot of ground-laying and relationship building, the second half gets to unfold as a series of action and suspense sequences. There is one new relationship built, as Sun Shangxiang (the younger sister of Sun Quan) realizes her dream of taking part in the action on equal footing with the men by infiltrating Cao Cao's camp in disguise. On the course of her reconnoitering, she meets a young, slightly goofy, low-ranking officer (played by Tong Dawei) and becomes friends with him (she's disguised as a man for this adventure, in time-honored Chinese-girls-in-drag fashion). We first meet him as he distinguishes himself in a match of cuju, the most ancient form of soccer (note again the Northerners emphasizing feet, as even their preferred sport involves kicking a ball and not using one's hands). This is all a pleasant diversion from the main plot, as Zhao Wei makes for a delightfully earnest and capable Sun and Tong is solid as a nice regular guy who just happens to find himself fighting for the wrong side of the war. Of course it will come back around in the final battle, but that predictability doesn't make it any less sad.

Eventually, the preliminaries done away with and the ceremonial dumplings eaten (shouldn't everything commence with the eating of ceremonial dumplings?) the Battle itself can begin. For literally hours, Woo has been teasing us with the massive CGI-scale of the assembled combatants, Cao Cao's thousands of ships (locked together with iron bars to minimize seasickness) spied upon by the camera and Zhuge's messenger pigeons. Timing proves everything to the final fight, as both sides prepare to set the other's ships on fire. The difference is that Zhuge Liang, in addition to being a brilliant tactician is also a capable meteorologist. If Zhou Yu is the ideal of the wise, romantic poet warrior, Zhuge Liang is the scholar-as-farmer, the brainiac with his feet firmly on the ground. It's Zhuge's practical knowledge, the knowledge of the peasant classes, that allows him to accurately predict a change in the direction of the wind, and thus leads to the incineration of Cao Cao's inexperienced, poorly led navy.

But even that wouldn't have worked if it wasn't for the heroic act of Zhou Yu's wife, Xiaoqiao. Hearing that Cao Cao is apparently obsessed with her, she sneaks into his camp and makes him some tea. That sounds silly, but as performed by Lin Chi-ling the power and sexiness of the tea ceremony is readily apparent, as she corrects Cao Cao on the proper way to sip from his cup, the depths of his obsession become a little understandable. Thus distracted, Cao Cao waits to long to begin his attack, until after the fatal wind has shifted. His navy destroyed, it's all he can do to marshal his land defenses, but the dazed Cao Cao, so flabbergasted at the awful destruction reaped by the fire, seems incapable of decisive action.

As the battle plays out, through the night and into the day, the rout is on and the drama comes from whether or not Xiaoqiao will be saved in time. The various generals rush into the heart of Cao Cao's camp, leading to a classic multi-directional John Woo standoff, with swords in place of his traditional pistols. But this isn't the true climax of the film, just of the Battle. Instead the peak comes in the final scenes further exploring the most fascinating relationship in the film, as Zhuge and Zhou say their goodbyes. Meeting on an impossibly lush hillside, the two friends recognize the fact that their nation, now spilt in three ("Three Kingdoms" you know), is not in a place of perpetual peace, that conflict between their respective rulers is inevitable. But their bond transcends petty politics, and the most moving love story of Woo's career ends with the heroes locked together, nose-to-nose, the rest of their world irrelevant to the demands of mutual respect and honor and loyalty. To blood brotherhood.

Red Cliff deserves to rank with the great epic war movies of all-time. The battle scenes are intricately designed and beautifully shot, and the characters unique enough within their generic types (helped in no small part by an exceptional cast) to keep the spaces between the action interesting. Whether it's due to the running time, or the daunting amount of Chinese history that the film builds upon, unknown to Western audiences (which similarly plagues Chang Cheh's great historical epics The Heroic Ones, Shaolin Temple and The Boxer Rebellion), it seems that despite the film's favorable notices on release, it has dropped through the cracks, reputation-wise. In an ideal world, it would be our generation's Lawrence of Arabia.

Running Out of Karma: Two Tsui Hark Romances

Running Out of Karma is my on-going series on Johnnie To and Hong Kong cinema. Here is an index.

Love in the Time of Twilight

This should be seen more. It doesn't even have a wikipedia page, and the DVD I rented of it is cropped to 4x3, yuck. Anyway, it's just your typical mashup of Back to the Future, Ghost, Cantonese Opera, Looney Tunes and vomit jokes. It might be the best of Tsui Hark's four films from 1995. Has any director had a year with so many films that were so different from each other? The Blade is a dark as hell ultra-violent wuxia film, The Chinese Feast a farce about food and community, and this one an effects-driven, period romantic comedy (more on the fourth, The Lovers, a hallucinogenic romantic melodrama, below). What a year.

A variation on the multiple-couple format of his own Shanghai Blues and Peking Opera Blues, where a group of mixed-gender protagonists dance curlicues around each other and the plot with love and sadness, except here the couples are doppelgangers of the two central figures. What begins as a conventional romantic comedy (anti-romantic opening where the leads instantly hate each other and engage in an escalating prank war, in this case unfolding in a marketplace dominated by fortune tellers and religious rituals), turns into a sci-fi mystery when the man, played by Nicky Wu, after instantly falling in love with another woman spends the night with her and the next day finds himself setup and killed by bank-robbing bandits. And then his ghost comes back to take Charlie Yeung, the woman from the opening, back in time to save himself. Complications ensue. As does hilarity, romance, all kinds of liminal spaces ("the time of twilight" indeed!) and, as in the best Tsui films, quiet moments for supporting characters (the woman's father singing a song for his dead wife) as well as the heroes (a young couple entranced by the ephemerality of fireworks) that are genuinely beautiful.

Much of the action takes place backstage at a theatre troupe, where Yeung performs, mostly unsuccessfully. This is a recurring location for Tsui: you can find such troupes in both the Blues movies as well as in Once Upon a Time in China. These performative space, places where characters engage in make believe and often find themselves remaking their own plots, seem particularly in line with the playfulness of Tsui's approach to film, his willingness to take his films to unexpected places, places founded on traditionally low forms of entertainment: slapstick comedy, vibrant melodrama, violent, even horrifying action. What distinguishes Tsui's vaudevillian forays from the work of Wong Jing, or even Johnnie To's The Eighth Happiness (which ends with a meta-finale on a Cantonese Opera stage) and its derivative works is that no matter how crazy Tsui's narratives become, they are always grounded in clear (even basic) emotional drives. His people make sense even if their worlds do not.

The Lovers

Starts as your typical guy-falls-in-love-with-girl-dressed-as-a-guy rom-com, then turns into hallucinatory elemental melodrama. Also starring Nicky Wu and Charlie Yeung from Love in the Time of Twilight, Tsui here presents a fairly faithful version of the oft-told legend of The Butterfly Lovers, a story somewhat akin to European legends like Tristan and Isolde, Heloise and Abelard or Romeo and Juliet: star-crossed lovers kept apart by various social constraints, ending in tragedy. Yueng is a young woman from a prominent family of cosmetics merchants circa 200 AD. Trying to sand off her rough edges, her family send her to a local college, with the twist that in order to be educated, she has to pretend to be a boy.

This apparently is not an uncommon ruse, as her mother did the same trick when she was young, and the college's dean is an understanding and sympathetic woman (undisguised) herself. There is a bit of a gay panic subplot as Nicky Wu meets her and, despite thinking she's a boy, finds himself falling in love with her. But that subplot is fairly quickly resolved and ignored (as opposed to forming the foundation of the story as in some of the lesser works of Wong Jing or Sammo Hung, or treated with sensitivity and intelligence as in Peter Chan's He's a Woman, She's a Man) as Wu figures out that she's a girl and the romance proper begins, followed quickly by the unfolding tragedy.

Wu graduates the college and Yeung returns home. Now a minor official (he's been studying to pass the test that qualifies you for a governmental position), Wu proposes marriage to Yeung's family. But he's outdone by a representative of the wealthier and more influential Ma family. Wu and Yeung conspire to elope but are undone by her parents. As the lovers are forcibly kept apart, nature itself seems to take a side. The sky turns nightmarish shades of pink, purple and orange; tears of blood flow; fierce winds and rain batter the unnatural constraints of the social order. Finally, the earth itself swallows the lovers whole, uniting them in a death that would be horrific if it wasn't so romantic.

Romance and Tsui Hark seem an odd combination. He seems much more at home in wacky comedies and action movies, genre fare that allows him to both explore and update traditional modes of Chinese narrative while at the same time giving them a subtly subversive twist. Wong Kar-wai's brand of earnest wistfulness seems anathema to Tsui, and his best romances follow the sidelong, game-playing pattern that also marks Johnnie To's romances.

Thursday, April 03, 2014

Running Out of Karma: Stephen Chow's Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons

Running Out of Karma is my on-going series on Johnnie To and Hong Kong cinema. Here is an index.

I see a lot of complaints that this, the latest from Stephen Chow, is "no Kung Fu Hustle (or Shaolin Soccer)" which, yeah sure, it's a different kind of movie than those. Those were the culmination of 15 years of Chow's comedy style, which burst on the scene in the early 90s with a string of smash comedies, built around lowest common denominator wordplay and slapstick parodies of popular genres (gambling movies with All for the Winner, cop movies with Fight Back to School, wuxia films with the Royal Tramp and Chinese Odyssey films, among many others (including a couple contentious collaborations with Johnnie To). Chow was arguably the biggest Hong Kong star of the 1990s, and Kung Fu Hustle in particular is a masterpiece, the pinnacle of the kung fu parody, driven by CGI to fully realize the live-action Looney Tunes-quality this era of Hong Kong comedy always strived for.

Journey to the West though has entirely different ambitions. It's still quite funny of course, and like most contemporary Hong Kong (or Hong Kong/Chinese, the various industries are increasingly intertwined) it is driven by special effects, most of which look quite good, and action. But building on the somewhat rote spiritualism of Kung Fu Hustle, Chow, along with his co-director Derek Kwok and a host of co-writers, appears to be exploring Buddhism with some allegorical seriousness. Freely adapting one of the Four Great Classical Novels of Chinese Literature, a work that has inspired numerous film adaptations, including the Chow-starring two-part 1995 film A Chinese Odyssey (written and directed by Jeffrey Lau) and the latest film from Taiwanese auteur Tsai Ming-liang, the film follows the growth of a young monk in training to be a demon-hunter. Played by Wen Zhang with an open earnestness very different from the cocky fools played by Chow in his prime, the young monk attempts not to destroy the demons, but rather rehabilitate them by freeing the good that he's convinced still lies within them (Skywalker-style). Demon-hunting being something of a growth industry in troubled Tang Dynasty (circa 600s AD) China, he quickly finds himself with a rival, played by frequent Hou Hsiao-hsien star Shu Qi. Shu takes the opposite approach, using some magic rings and nifty combat moves to ensnare the demons, a task she proves much more adept at than Wen.

Shu takes a liking to Wen, not because of his charm or handsomeness, but rather because she's attracted to the purity of his motives. And, having taking a vow of celibacy, his refusal of her advances only convinces her further of his righteousness, turning her on even more. As they encounter a series of demons (a giant fish monster, then a serial-killing pig, finally the Monkey King himself), Shu keeps trying to trick the monk into falling in love with her (or at least having sex with her), going so far as to set up an elaborate and bloody ruse (leading to one of the film's best recurring gags as one of her henchman's special effects goes awry). This episodic quest narrative, leavened with liberal amounts of outsized action and comedy and some truly inspired images (a demon-hunter with a notable foot, for one), is pleasant enough, but by the end of the film it becomes apparent that every episode has its role in the allegory Chow is building.

Each of the demons is a human who's soul has been poisoned by tragedy, their perversions the direct result of desire and attachment. They are markers for the things the Buddhist must renounce in order to achieve enlightenment. The fish demon is after revenge on a village that wronged him in a horrible way. The pig demon was consumed by jealousy after his wife cheated on him. The Monkey King, greatest demon of them all, dared to defy Buddha himself in declaring war on heaven in a psychotic expression of personal freedom. They represent impulses the monk must rid himself of, negative desires that lead people to their own destruction. At the same time, Shu's demon-hunter, who the monk has (chastely of course) come to love, comes to embody all that he must leave behind. Because enlightenment isn't just about renouncing life's negative impulses, it's also about understanding loss and suffering, and you can't understand loss if you don't have something you love that you have to let go.

So, rather than building to the kind of anarchic extravaganza that culminated Chow's best-known efforts, Journey to the West becomes increasingly serious has it goes along (not that there isn't darkness throughout the film, as each of the demon episodes features some shocking horrors). It doesn't follow the escalating structure of classic screwball and slapstick comedies, instead it follows the spiritual journey of its hero (similar to the path trod by King Hu's A Touch of Zen) tracing an epic arc from grounded realism through increasing abstraction to a kind of transcendence. Kung Fu Hustle is a feint in this direction, as Chow's hero ultimately masters kung fu and attains a kind of enlightenment, in a parody of traditional martial arts films like The 36th Chamber of Shaolin. But Journey to the West takes the ideology behind the generic form seriously and infuses it into its very structure. Chow plays it straight and the result is something I never expected: Stephen Chow's Au hazard Balthazar.