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Red Cliff: Interview with John Woo

One of teh epic battles from John Woo's "Red Cliff"
Magnolia Pictures
One of teh epic battles from John Woo's "Red Cliff"

Red Cliff Screens Tonight at SDAFF

As a reminder to everyone that John Woo's "Red Cliff" screens tonight at 7:00 pm at the San Diego Asian Film Festival, I am posting my full interview with the Hong Kong action master. So enjoy his comments and go see "Red Cliff."

The historical novel “The Romance of the Three Kingdoms” has been on your mind for decades. What was it that has held your interest for so long?

John Woo: This story based on true events, the battle of Red Cliff was a big battle fought around 200 AD in China. It shows how a smaller army can defeat a larger more powerful enemy through a combination of teamwork, innovation, intelligence and courage. So I grew up with the story and also there were so many heroes that I admire and I think it’s nice to make it into a movie. In this there is a very famous battle that is in the movie, what we called the burning ships. The heroes set ten boats on fire and ram them into the enemy’s navy of 2000 ships. Because of the direction of the wind, the ten boats set the entire enemy navy on fire. So it was a brilliant strategy that relied on understanding nature. So it looked stunning and spectacular and it was a very famous battle in history.


So was it the historical nature of the story that fascinated? Or did the themes and characters resonate with those that you have been dealing with for years?

John Woo: Yeah, It’s a very famous piece of Chinese history that most Asian people know about and we been studying it and we’ve learned so much from it. Some of the characters even become like gods for the Chinese people. There’s a very famous general called Huang Xu, he was very brave, very loyal, and everyone viewed him as a good example and worship him. Also another general call Zhao Yun, he was quite a character, he was a man who had a code of honor. There’s a famous scene in a movie where he’s saving a baby in the middle of the battle and he became a legend and he also gave me a lot of influence. For example I use his character for Chow Yun Fat in one of my Hong Kong films called “Hard-Boiled.” In that movie what Chow did was he was always saving a baby in the middle of gunfire, so all these kinds of heroic images came from this character from the battle of Red Cliff. All those characters are very influential and also everyone knows about them. And inside there was also a very romantic love story, like Troy. The story was also about the good guy and the bad guy are both in love with the same woman. So it’s very romantic.

When you are shooting action and battles, what’s key in your mind about what you want to convey because so often your action scenes reveal your characters.

John Woo: Always the character came first. Whenever I figure out the action sequence it is usually based on the character. So in this film there are about three major battle sequences, two of the battle scenes are based on true story. Like there’s a big action sequence called the “Turtle Formation,” it was real and another scene, the burning ships scene when they set the ten boats on fire and ram them into the enemy navy. And then all these sequences came from the great idea of the characters.

People are talking about this as your return to China, but actually this is your first time shooting on the Mainland, correct?


John Woo: Yeah, it’s my first big movie I shot in China. I have a great time shooting in China because we have a huge support from the Chinese government. They are very open and very warm and they all love movies. Everything was so simple. I just walk into their office and let them know that I wanted to make a movie called “Red Cliff,” and they said, “okay let’s do it.” That simple. I don’t need to take any advice form anyone and I don’t have to take any meetings, I just shut my door and do my own work. On the other hand, there are a lot of very talented young people in China. They all have a great passion about movies. And they were so excited to work on a Hollywood-like, big budget movie. And they learn a lot. I also bring in a lot of supervisors from the United States and I also have people from Korea and we all work together as a team. For China they really want to make the good movies so they are very open right now.

It also seems that you would have a lot of manpower at your disposal since you had to build essential weapons, boats, and an army for the film.

John Woo: We have built twenty-five real ships for all kinds of action and for all kinds of real life shooting but of course we have to CG the rest of the battle ships. We also got support from army, so we have got 700 too 1500 soldiers on the set everyday. We also had a stunt group from all over the country, from Taiwan and Hong Kong. So it was a big team. And they work very hard to make everything work. And we also had to find a location to build the dock and the ship. So the whole atmosphere was great and the whole team feels like a family.

"Red Cliff"
Magnolia Pictures
"Red Cliff"

Can you talk about the fact that the film was released in two parts in Asia but will be condensed down to a single film for U.S. Distribution. You approved this and actually oversaw the cut version, correct?

John Woo: Yes, because for the Asian audience they are all so familiar with this part of history and characters so we could take more time developing the characters and the relationships between them. However for the American audience they are not as familiar so we have to focus on the main storyline and key characters and we have also been told that for American audiences watching a foreign film with subtitles they don’t like watching for that two or two and a half hours. So that’s why we made two versions. But no matter how we cut it is still the same story. Some people say of the shorter version that it is more exciting and concentrated. So for me, I love both versions even though I didn’t want to make too many cuts in the beginning but after the editor made cuts and did a very good job it made me feel very relaxed.

You haven’t done a period film in a long time, is there a difference in how you approach the action?

John Woo: There’s not much of a difference to me, I mean a gun battle or a battle with two swords, it still remains the same themes of friendship, love, courage, and romanticism. I still keep the same style. The thing that interest me in this film is all the battle scenes and action sequences is that there were so many different challenges. I’m sure it will make the audience feel like they haven’t seen anything like this before, that it is a new kind of action, different from the kung fu action. Actually when I was making the gun battles in my earlier movies, I was also had gotten inspiration from the martial arts movies. You could see our heroes using two guns just like using two swords. And also they have the same kind of spirit, they are all fighting for justice and they are all also have the same kind of code of honor. On the other hand I always want to make this movie for more of a personal reason. Because even though it is a war movie, it also has a pretty strong message of anti-war. I would also like to stress that in war there are no winners. So I didn’t care if it was a historical film it was a personal film that I wanted a modern audience would want to see it and would relate to it.

You had mentioned that MGM musical influenced your approach to shooting action films. Does that still hold true today?

John Woo: Yeah, yeah. Whenever I am choreographing the action sequence I still feel I am choreographing a dancing sequence. I am so concerned about the rhythm of the action and the beauty of the body movements that it’s like a dance. So yes it still gives me a lot of influence.

"Red Cliff" plays tonight only at 7:00 pm as the centerpiece film of the San Diego Asian Film Festival.