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Musings from the Edge of Forever

Note: This blog expresses only the opinions of the blog owner,
and does not represent the opinion of any organization or blog
that is associated with RONIN ON EMPTY.

Red Cliff — The Condensed Version

Red Cliff Tony

In the early press releases for John Woo’s Red Cliff, it was announced that the film would be split in half for Asian audiences. Part I was almost two-and-a-half hours long, while Part II was only slightly shorter than that. With the split-release of Kill Bill already well behind us, this announcement was certainly nothing new, and I’m sure most John Woo fans were glad that he wouldn’t have to compromise his vision by cutting his film to fit a conventional theatrical running time. However, that wasn’t the only announcement that was made in regard to the film’s release. It was also mentioned that there would be an American version of the film, one that would run only two-and-a-half hours total. For purists, this probably seemed heretical, and for the rest of us, it just seemed odd. How can you squeeze over four hours of story into a movie that’s only a little over half its original running time?

Well, while watching the first installment of Red Cliff I became convinced that it could be done. Later, I watched Red Cliff II and started to have other ideas, but whatever my reservations, I’ll transcribe my thoughts on how to rework the first installment for your amusement.

The Title

If the films have so far been called Red Cliff and Red Cliff II, then it seems logical that the US release would be just Red Cliff. But that kinda lacks pizzazz, doesn’t it? Now, I’m not saying they should call it The Legend of Red Cliff, like all those lame Miramax re-namings of classic Hong Kong films that always seemed to utilize the word “legend.” But I do kinda like Battle of Red Cliff, as I’m almost positive it was originally called. Maybe that’s just me.

Level of Prior Knowledge

Red Cliff Heroes

We’re kind of a big deal.

The first thing I would suggest to John Woo and company for the re-edit is this: don’t assume your audience knows anything about Romance of the Three Kingdoms. At best, they might have played an installment of Dynasty Warriors, but that’s about as good as it gets. Now, I’m not suggesting that Woo spoon-feed us the entire epic novel, but it would be nice if we had some context. I think it would be easy to give Western viewers some basic knowledge and point out the major players, either through quick subtitles when certain character appear, or, better yet, through the use of a Lord of the Rings-style prologue, complete with narration by Zhuge Liang (Takeshi Kaneshiro).

The Look of Love

Red Cliff Takeshi

“Care for a Bro-mance?”

Speaking of good ol’ Zhugey, I think it would behoove John Woo in this new version to cut out Takeshi Kaneshiro’s many (and I mean, many) long, strangely loving glances at other strapping manly men. Now don’t get me wrong, it’s not because I want to stamp out homoeroticism. No, it’s because all those close-ups are padding the film’s already long running time! I know, I know, Mr. Woo, you like to hold shots of men looking at other men a little longer than most, but you could cut a good twenty minutes out of the movie with this very small sacrifice.

Cao Cao is an A-Hole 

I like how the film tries to humanize Cao Cao,* but I’m not entirely convinced it really does much for the film. There’s this whole “Helen of Troy” angle that doesn’t really work that well, in large part due to it not being set up very convincingly in the first chapter. What I would suggest is to recut the Cao Cao scenes to make him more of an out-and-out villain. He can still be majestic, as in the impressive scene in which he commands the fleet, but in terms of scenes that have to be chucked out the window in this new version, I think all the attempts to peel back the layers of this character could be removed with little expense to the overall narrative.

Voiceover Narration

Tony Leung Chiu-Wai may figure prominently in the promotional material for Red Cliff, but I’m convinced that part one really belongs to Zhuge Liang. Not only is he played by a major actor and all-around good-looking guy, but Zhuge Liang is the central character, the hub through which all the major heroes interact. And for the most part, it is through his eyes that we see the events of the film as well as form opinions about other characters (i.e. his man-crush gazings). By employing voiceover narration, the film would have a more emphatic narrative thrust and consequently be more accessible to a Western audience. That doesn’t mean you can’t show what’s going on outside his perspective, but the use of voiceover would help dictate the editing process. And besides, Chungking Express and Fallen Angels show that Takeshi can do voiceover right.

Tony, Tony, Tony

Let’s face it: Tony Leung Chiu-Wai needs to show up earlier, not forty-some minutes into the picture. The guy is the freakin’ MAN in this movie. Not only does Tony bring the most star wattage to the movie, but the character himself is the main attraction anyway. Spotlighting Tony Leung Chiu-Wai early would also help with the voiceover/perspective issues. The film could play out a lot like a Chinese take on the work of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle – the story is about the Sherlock Holmesian Zhao Yu (Tony Leung), but it’s narrated from the perspective of Takeshi Kaneshiro’s more dashing, smarter, and handsomer Dr. Watson. Or to use a video game example, think Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty (Tony Leung = Solid Snake, Takeshi = Raiden).

Zhonghua Jita Yingxiong

Red Cliff Guitar Hero

Wanna hear ‘Stairway to Heaven’? No, how about ‘Freebird’?”

This scene in which Zhao Yu and Zhuge Liang jam the night away on their stringed instruments is perhaps the most unintentionally funny sequence in the entire film. I would say cut this out because it’s pretty silly, but I have to admit, it does register as a real character moment for the two performers and a great capper to what came before, as the two have already been sizing each other up prior to this encounter. I think my main problem was the music. Maybe they should just redub it. I’m thinking Ralph Macchio versus Steve Vai in Crossroads, but that’s just my personal taste.

Over the Edge of the Cliff

Well, those were my thoughts when I watched Red Cliff. I was pretty convinced this would work, and was hoping John Woo would hire me as a consultant. Rather than give viewers a Reader’s Digest version of the film, I thought it could instead be re-edited into a more coherent and better work through my suggestions. And then I saw Red Cliff II. The film was so much superior to its predecessor in terms of content, pacing, editing style, etc, that I was sort of at a loss when it came to making suggestions about re-editing it. My serious idea of voiceover narration seemed to be a little unwieldy as Tony Leung really came to the fore in the sequel. I even love the cross-dressing stuff with Vicki Zhao Wei in the enemy camp, even though it runs a little long and you can see the outcome from a mile away. Thus, I have no idea what to cut from Part II, although I suppose minor moments could be cut here and there. Essentially, Part I would have to be cut down to 30 minutes if much of Part II was to be retained. My feeling is — the new US version might need to be three hours rather than two-and-a-half.

So I dunno, what do you all think? These were just some thoughts that came to me while I was watching the film, and should be taken in that spirit. If you had to edit both films into one movie, what would you cut out? What would you change? Why?

10 Responses to “Red Cliff — The Condensed Version”

  1. Dana Says:

    I don’t think you could cut out much (or anything) if you wanted to cut out some Zhou Xun stuff.

  2. admin Says:

    Whoops! I meant Zhao Wei, the actress.

  3. admin Says:

    I think I might have finally fixed the formatting on this post.

  4. Crystal Says:

    Um, I think there should be MORE loving glances from Takeshi. Isn’t he looking at me? Am I wrong? Hee hee. No, but I like it, I like the smirky I’m smart and are you as smart as me, but I’m not going to let you know how smart I am look!

    For real, I agree that you could lose the music battle (but I liked it), but I think I may have to disagree about Tony Leung. Don’t get me wrong, you know he’s my man, but I would ditch all the time they take to convince Sun Quan to get with the program. Yeah, he’s the ruler and all, but I wouldn’t miss him. That’s all I’m sayin.

    I think you could cut the rescue of Liu Bei’s son, just have them get the refugees out.

    It should be apparent that I really don’t have any ideas. For the US, editors will cut out stuff we think should stay in, and it won’t be the same, and I’ll have to tell people to go get their own.

  5. Sanjuro Says:

    When Tony Leung hands Chang Chen the bow and arrow and says something like, “It’s time to go hunting,” I figured he was literally telling him, “Let’s get our war on, dog.” And then it turns out it’s a metaphor, and they actually do go hunting, and we have to sit through the entire scene, even though it’s pretty obvious what must happen so he’ll get with the program. A lot of that stuff could be reworked or cut out.

    The rescue of Liu Bei’s son, etc — maybe that should be cut down to montage/prologue material.

  6. mike Says:

    i think the post is dead-on on what the movie could lose. really almost half of the first movie and i do disagree on what can be lost in the 2nd part, well just the battle scenes. those are easy to lose actually. just need plot movement then the extra fluff can be cut.

  7. Crystal Says:

    Haha! I agree, that whole hunting scene was unnecessary. There are also things I’m glad they left out, like the whole Lady Sun/Liu Bei romance. And they should have left out the whole start a war for a woman thing. But I’m going to continue to hold it down for RC1. It can’t be all cutting people’s head’s off and stabbing them in the back on the battlefield. But I did like the fire. Does that make me a pyromaniac?

  8. Eliza Bennet Says:

    The film is so strange to me (since I actually read the novel). Tony’s character is made into the nicest guy - he is a villain in the novel- and not much mention of Zhuge (he is the SUPER hero of the novel). I liked how John Woo turned things around though. And I loved how he filmed the straw men and arrows scene. It was very similar to how I imagined it :)

    So I don’t think any additional info about the novel is necessary, the prominant characters in the novel (Kuan Yu, Chang Fei and Liu Bei) are just side characters in this chapter - which is more like a battle of wits between Zhuge and Chao Y, yes even though they are on the same side.

  9. Gabriel Says:

    “Men looking at men”?? Ha ha ha. Frankly I didn’t notice all those loving glances Takeshi was giving Tony, but then I watched the DVD only once. Now I must watch it again JUST FOR THAT REASON. Maybe they could take the long lingering glances out of the movie & compile them into a special feature for the DVD.

  10. achillesgirl Says:

    Thank you for your opinion of Red Cliff I. I agree on all major points.

    1. Yes, prior knowledge is a must! After first seeing Red Cliff, this white chick spent the next four months reading and watching various versions of Romance of the Three Kingdoms, then came back to Red Cliff and Hey Presto, it all made sense! And it was soooo good after all those other crappy versions I watched! I know that Woo views Red Cliff as an introduction to Chinese culture, but I think he doesn’t understand how little we know. And how little most of us care to know. The majority of us will need to be spoonfed the basics.

    2. Yes, Cao Cao’s obsession with the wife is ridiculous. And it’s demeaning to his character. As if pure power is not motivation enough for war… Can’t he just be a normal treacherous, strategically brilliant power-monger? Axe the whole sexual obsession thing; it’s just dumb.

    3. Puhleaze, John Woo’s infamous long, loving glances don’t take up that much screen time! Hey, the manly men turning their heads skyward to quietly listen to the boy play the flute was, in my opinion, way more gooshy. That’s a scene that I think could (and should) be dispensed with, along with:

    4. The qin jam/bonding scene. Yes, it does explain the bond, but Woo could chop the scene up and add it into a montage of bonding/training/preparing and achieve the same result. Or something like that. I intensely disliked the music in this scene (all the music in the film, actually), so I’d love to make it go away.

    5. Yes, Tony Leung needs more screen time. But Kaneshiro is indeed the hub around which all things revolve, so I very much like the idea of the Watson/Holmes relationship in a voice-over.

    I am waiting for my copy of Red Cliff II to arrive, so I’ve got nothing left to say!

    Great ideas for the combo “Battle of Red Cliff”. If I were Mr. Woo I’d hire you right away.

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