Burn Baby Burn!: Red Cliff (1 and 2)

Ok, I’ve put it off long enough.  Some may be aware of my luv for Red Cliff, and now that I’ve seen the second half, I feel I can speak on it.  First, I have to re-declare my fandom for John Woo.  Let’s face it, he had us worried with those Hollywood “projects” (Face/Off, Mission Impossible 2).  Don’t get me wrong, I liked both of them, but they were no A Better Tomorrow, The Killer or (sigh), Bullet in the Head.  David Bordwell has a chapter on Woo in his book Planet Hong Kong called “Enough to Make Strong Men Weep,” and that’s what Woo did to perfection!  We know Woo is excellent with the betrayal in the brotherhood theme, but I was not convinced that  he handle the sweeping epic. So you can imagine my trepidation:  would Red Cliff mark a triumphant return of Woo to Hong Kong film, or just make me cry?

Happy to say, I welcome John Woo back with open arms!!!  I taught a class on Asian film, and had them read Three Kingdoms (I’m talking the unabridged, 2200 page version my kids don’t skimp!), and ended the class with Red Cliff 1.  I waited to watch it with them, and I did literally jump up and down at the end. (If they want to see Red Cliff 2, they have to take the class next year!)  I liked seeing the three brothers (although I still think Liu Bei is still the punkiest of the three; Chang Fei is out of control, my money is always on Gwan Yu), but I really liked seeing Zhuge Liang, played by Takeshi Kaneshiro.  In the book, yeah, the soldiers are out with the swords, but nothing beats a good advisor by your side, and I like smart, so I was down for Zhuge, especially since he seemed to bring just a little bit of very understated sass to his.  And I am very glad that Woo gave more substance to Lady Sun other that inevitable love interest of Liu Bei.

A lot of people are saying that they liked the second one better than the first (apparently, so are the box office profits in China), but I’m going to stand up for the first one.  Why?  Yeah, we expect to see some spectacular battle scenes and smack talking among generals, but what I liked about the first installment is that you got a sense of these men:  Sun Quan, who is so obviously still suffering from “not good enough” syndrome, Zhou Yu and his benevolent and honorable approach to war (doesn’t hurt that Tony Leung plays him, so easy on the eyes), Cao Cao and his shear domination and bad-assness.   

So yes, I liked this film, right down to the lovely soundtrack.

Dead on Arrival

Maybe if I get it out I can let it go.  I’m not down on remakes, just bad ones.  Let’s take some time to see what the remake means.  It means that you are taking something that is already out there, and “reimagining” it.  Fine, cool, but you have to be ready for the inevitable comparison to previous versions, that’s the price you pay.  Pony up!

Let me start by saying I do find things to appreciate in the filmmaking of Quentin Tarantino and Martin Scorsese.  I can’t deny the inherent “coolness” of Tarantino’s stuff.  I have found myself on many a day contemplating whether I am the shepherd or the tyranny of evil  men.  There are still slots open for my own personal set of Crazy 88s. And no one will be able to convince me that Daniel Day-Lewis was not robbed in Gangs of New York. He didn’t play Bill “The Butcher” Cutting, he WAS Bill “The Butcher” Cutting. 

My issue comes with the fact that I can’t watch The Departed and not think of Infernal Affairs, and I can’t watch Kill Bill Vol. 1 and not think of Lady Snowblood.  Let’s take Marty first.  I tried.  I tried to watch The Departed.  I gave it the college try. And then I had just turn it off.  To me, Infernal Affairs is this film built on a certain kind of subtlety.  It doesn’t rely on accent laden dialogue to get the point across.  It’s a complicated elegance that The Departed entirely lacks.  For example, the scene where there is a near miss at the movie theater.  In Andrew Lau’s film, there is a building tension when Tony Leung follows Andy Lau down the corridor and around blind corners.  There corridors are empty, adding to the tension. Will he turn around?  And then the cell phone rings, its sound echoing off the sides of the building.  In Scorsese’s film, Leonardo DiCaprio chases Matt Damon down a crowed city street, to a side alley.  The scene is shorter, and lacks the tension found in Lau’s film.   

While my issues with The Departed have a lot to do with aesthetics, I’ve saved a special place of dislike for Kill Bill, Vol.1.  Others more eloquent than I have taken the film to task for various and sundry reasons, but let me add more.  My primary issue with Tarantino’s film is that many American audiences look at it and go, “Gee, that’s cool.”  My response is:  that ain’t new.  There are women wielding swords all over Hong Kong, Japanese and Korean film.  What is especially troublesome is that Tarantino appropriates from Lady Snowblood and in doing so takes the whole revenge plot out of context.  He leaves behind the whole backdrop of shifting political realities in Japan, particularly the conscription of people and misuse of taxes, which underwrites the reasons why the main character has to go on the revenge quest in the first place. And context is key.  

Let’s talk a little more about context.  If Tarantino really wanted to revolutionize the genre, he would have cast someone not white not blond not blue-eyed as a protagonist in a yellow jumpsuit who beats everyone down, with no status as sidekick, no need for a buddy, and no casting him/her as the villain. He would have culturally corrected the horrendous mistake in casting that sent Bruce Lee to Hong Kong in the first place.  But nooooooooooo.

For people who have seen the Asian films that inform these films, but The Departed and Kill Bill, Vol. 1 are dead on arrival.