Action maestro John Woo is putting the finishing touches to Asia’s most expensive movie: a Chinese historical epic. But the filming of Red Cliff has been plagued by torrential rains, set damage and the departures of two of its stars. Clifford Coonan repor
HISTORIANS believe that one million soldiers took part in the battle of Red Cliff, the bloody confrontation that gave birth to China’s Three Kingdoms. Never one to shy away from a challenge, Hong Kong’s director-in-chief John Woo – filming for the first time in Mandarin since relocating to Hollywood 15 years ago – has made sure that his ¤55 million take on this piece of Chinese history will be as epic as the original battle itself.
Red Cliff could cement China’s reputation as a film-making centre. After a production schedule blasted by actor-scheduling issues and appalling weather, the biggest Chinese movie of all time is now pretty much in the can.
The movie has got some of the biggest names in Asian cinema, including Woo himself, who is presumably hoping for a hit after a lacklustre run at the US box-office. It’s the most expensive movie ever made in Asia, with funding coming entirely from independent producers. It’s also four hours long in one version, and has had to overcome serious casting changes.
The story is based on part of a classic Chinese novel, Romance of the Three Kingdoms. Set in the year 208, the final days of the Han Dynasty, it covers the war that established the Three Kingdoms period, when China had three rulers.
The movie has truly epic proportions for Asian cinema – the financing is groundbreaking, the budget immense, the length fearsome and the special effects tipped to be awesome.
The production has been dogged by difficulties, many of them weather-related (torrential rains washed away part of an outdoor set in Hebei in northern China), and other linked to the myriad personnel changes on the film.
In March 2007, Tony Leung, of Lust, Caution and In the Mood for Love, dropped out of the project. At the time, he says he felt unable to commit to the six-month shoot Red Cliff demanded, and he was replaced by Japanese star Takeshi Kaneshiro.
Soon afterwards, old Woo hand Chow Yunfat left the set. This was a real shock, given that Woo made Chow a legend, establishing him as Hong Kong’s Robert De Niro in such smash hits as A Better Tomorrow, The Killer and Hard Boiled.
The circumstances of Chow’s departure remain mysterious. Chinesemedia say it was because of unreasonable demands by the actor and conditions that completion bond company CineFinance could not accept. Chow countered, saying the same firm bonded him twice before with the same requirements. Two days after Chow quit, Leung was back in the lineup as lead actor, replacing Chow.
Red Cliff is written as a four-hour film. For Asia, it will be split into two parts, with the first released in July in China, Hong Kong, Taiwan and Korea, and October in Japan. Audiences outside Asia will get a single movie, expected to clock in at two and a half hours, coinciding with the release of the second part in Asia in December.
For Woo, the pic is partly a patriotic exercise and a return to his roots. One of the key reasons for making Red Cliff such a major production is that he wants mainland Chinese crews to learn from the experience. “Red Cliff is the movie I’ve spent the most energy on, prepared for the longest, and is the most tiring since I started making movies,” he told the Southern Daily newspaper.
Shooting officially wrapped on November 30th, but some second unit work remained, and Terence Chang, the film’s producer and Woo’s partner in Lion Rock Entertainment, expressed doubt that the film would be finished in time for Cannes. “We’ll deliver it in May, but maybe it won’t be quite ready. It’s been a long shoot but we’re in pretty good shape.”
Chang describes the movie as a cross between Troy, 300 and The Perfect Storm. “There’s a lot of CGI in there.” It has yet to find a US buyer. “We’ve already sold it to a lot of European territories, but we are holding back on North America because people have a wrong impression about Chinese films there. They think of Hero and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, so we want to show them the movie when it’s finished.”
According to industry sources, a lot of money is being asked for the North American rights, and studios are waiting it out, wary of spending too much following the less than spectacular international performances of films such as Chen Kaige’s The Promise and Zhang Yimou’s Curse of the Golden Flower.
China crisis: Tony Leung in the epic but tortured Red Cliff