One of the most ballyhooed Asian productions in recent history, and the most expensive Chinese-lingo picture ever, John Woo's costume actioner "Red Cliff" scales the heights.

One of the most ballyhooed Asian productions in recent history, and the most expensive Chinese-language picture ever, John Woo’s costume actioner “Red Cliff” scales the heights. First seg of the two-part, $80 million historical epic — with “The Battle of Red Cliff” to follow in late January — balances character, grit, spectacle and visceral action in a meaty, dramatically satisfying pie that delivers on the hype and will surprise many who felt the Hong Kong helmer progressively lost his mojo during his long years stateside. Pic may, however, disappoint those looking for simply a costume retread of his kinetic, ’80s H.K. classics.

Film is pitched more at an older demographic than traditional Asian youth auds, and the July 10 release (in China, Hong Kong, Taiwan and South Korea) faces heavy competition from other summer titles after its first frame. But robust initial returns point to the two-parter putting black ink on most investors’ ledgers – apart, maybe, from Japanese investor Avex, who bankrolled more than half the budget. Non-Asian returns look to be much smaller, especially as in the West the whole 4 1/2-hour movie will be available only in a single, 2 1/2-hour version that could end up losing much of the character detail that motors the production.

Detailing an incident familiar to auds throughout Asia, the script by Woo and three other writers mixes elements from history (as recorded in a third-century chronicle by Chen Shou), the freely fictionalized classic “Romance of the Three Kingdoms” by 14th-century scribe Luo Guanzhong and their own filmic imagination into a dramatic stew that has engendered beaucoup debate among Asian specialists and auds who already have their own ideas about the characters from multiple comicbook treatments, TV drama series and school textbooks. However, given that these often contradict each other – even down to details of who were the good and bad guys — pic always faced an uphill battle pleasing everyone.

But the picture indisputably works on its own terms. Though this first part is a long warm-up to the part two naval battle on the Yangtze River that saw the forces of the North rebuffed by those of the South, it contains more than enough action and drama to justify its length, as well as a cliffhanger ending that leaves auds hungry for more.

Yarn opens in summer AD 208, with prime minister-cum-general Cao Cao (powerful mainland Chinese vet Zhang Fengyi) asking permission from Han dynasty Emperor Xian (Wang Ning) to lead an expedition south to take on “rebellious” warlords Liu Bei (You Yong) and Sun Quan (Taiwan thesp Chang Chen). Jittery mood in the imperial court sets the stage for the political machinations that marble the whole movie — and forecasts the period of turmoil, known as the Three Kingdoms, that followed the imminent collapse of the 400-year-old Han dynasty.

Socko 20-minute action sequence, as Cao Cao’s massive army sweeps south and meets Liu’s forces in the Battle of Changban, establishes the gritty, chaotic tone of the movie’s land warfare. Cool, almost grungy color processing, and action that’s exaggerated but not manga-like, are underpinned by ace art director Tim Yip’s realistic costumes and design. There’s no clear sense of geography in the skirmishes, but maybe that’s the point.

As Liu & Co. lick their wounds after their retreat, Liu’s canny strategist, Zhuge Liang (Takeshi Kaneshiro) proposes an alliance between him and Sun Quan vs. Cao Cao’s seemingly unstoppable forces. Pic’s second act broadens here, establishing the nervous, indecisive character of Sun Quan, his tomboyish sister, Sun Shangxiang (lively mainland babe Vicki Zhao) — and last but not least, Sun Quan’s commander, Zhou Yu (Hong Kong heartthrob Tony Leung Chiu-wai).

The appearance, 40 minutes in, of toplined Leung (a last-minute replacement for Chow Yun-fat) adds some real emotional heft to the drama. Though not the most physically imposing thesp in the cast, Leung is easily the subtlest, and the character’s musical interests add extra layers to what, until then, has been simply a sturdy historical actioner.

Main cast has few weak links and traverses all shades of character. Zhang and Leung dominate the movie, while Kaneshiro is fine as wily strategist Zhuge and Zhao adds welcome humor as the feisty princess. Chang is a tad lightweight in such company as the wimpish Sun, and Taiwanese super-model Lin Chi-ling mostly decorative as Zhou’s wife. Multitude of colorful supports is led by Mongolian actor Basenzabu as a warrior who’s a one-man moving mountain.

Dark-toned color processing doesn’t glamorize the period and adds gravitas to many of the youthful actors. Japanese composer Taro Iwashiro’s multi-faceted score — brazzy, playful, lyrical by turns — adds real dramatic clout throughout. Visual effects are just OK.

Version caught in South Korea (cut by local distrib-investor Showbox) was nine minutes shorter than that shown in Chinese-speaking territories, with a couple scenes shortened, including a calligraphy sequence prior to Zhou making love to his wife. Japanese version, to be released later this year, will also be shorter than Woo’s 140-minute cut.

Red Cliff

China-Japan-Taiwan-South Korea-U.S.

Production

A China Film Group Corp. (in China)/Avex Entertainment (in Japan)/CMC Entertainment, 20th Century Fox (in Taiwan)/Showbox (in South Korea) release of a China Film Group, Chengtian Entertainment (China)/Avex Entertainment (Japan)/CMC Entertainment (Taiwan)/Showbox (South Korea)/John Woo presentation of a Lion Rock Prods. production. (International sales: Summit Entertainment, Los Angeles.) Produced by Terence Chang, Woo. Executive producers, Han Sanping, Wu Kebo, Masato Matsuura, Ryuhei Chiba, Huang Chin-wen, Kim Woo-taek, Ryu Jeong-chun. Co-producers, Anne Woo, Zhang Daxing, Yeh Ju-feng, David Tang, Wang Wei, Cheri Yeung. Directed by John Woo. Screenplay, Woo, Khan Chan, Kuo Cheng, Sheng Heyu.

Crew

Camera (CineLabs Beijing color, widescreen), Lu Yue, Zhang Li; editors, Angie Lam, Yang Hongyu, Robert A. Ferretti; music, Taro Iwashiro; production-costume designer, Tim Yip; sound (Dolby Digital), Roger Savage; sound designer, Steve Burgess; visual effects supervisors, Craig Hayes, Kevin Rafferty; visual effects, The Orphanage, CafeFX, Hatch Prod.; stunt supervisor, Dion Lam; stunt co-ordinator, Guo Jianyong; assistant directors, Albert Cho, Richard L. Fox, Thomas Chow; secnd unit directors, Zhang Jinzhan (army battles), Patrick Leung (naval battle); action director, Corey Yuen; casting, Cheng Jie. Reviewed at CGV Bucheon 3, South Korea, July 19, 2008. Running time: 131 MIN.

With

Zhou Yu - Tony Leung Chiu-wai Zhuge Liang - Takeshi Kaneshiro Cao Cao - Zhang Fengyi Sun Quan - Chang Chen Sun Shangxiang - Vicki Zhao Zhao Yun - Hu Jun Gan Xing - Shido Nakamura Xiao Qiao - Lin Chi-ling Liu Bei - You Yong Lu Su - Hou Yong Sun Shucai - Tong Dawei Li Ji - Song Jia Guan Yu - Basenzabu Zhang Fei - Zang Jinsheng Huang Gai - Zhang Shan Cao Hong - Wang Hui Jiang Gan - Shi Xiaohong Kong Rong - Wang Qingxiang Emperor Xian - Wang Ning Lady Mi - He Yin
With: Jiang Tong, Kou Shixun, Li Hong, Menghe Wuliji, Wang Yuzhang, Zhang Yi, Wu Qi, Chen Changhai, Zhao Chengshun, Wang Zaolai, Xie Gang, Yi Zhen, Jia Hongwei, Guo Chao, Cui Yugui, Xu Fengnian, Ma Jing, Hu Xiaoguang, Ye Hua. (Mandarin dialogue)

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