Director John Woo takes on China’s greatest literary work and a Western audience

[31 October 2008]

By Ikuko Kitagawa

The Yomiuri Shimbun (MCT)

TOKYO - For director John Woo to realize his 18-year dream of filming the 13th-century masterpiece “Romance of the Three Kingdoms,” he would have to return to Asia. The veteran Chinese director, who was responsible for blockbusters such as “M:I-2” and “Face/Off,” needed the knowledge and insight that only Asian writers and actors could provide. But most importantly, it was necessary for the director to get back into an Asian mindset.

“I had to start from the beginning. When I went to Hollywood, when I made a Hollywood film, I had to fully concentrate on the culture and society, about how people think, so I had to set aside my own culture for a while,” Woo told The Yomiuri Shimbun during an interview about his new film “Red Cliff.” This was his first feature filmed in Asia since moving his operations to Hollywood in 1992.

“When I go back to Asia, I have to relinquish what I have done in the United States. So I have to start over again and I have to go back to learn the language, the thoughts, culture and everything.”

Although he was initially uneasy and confused, it didn’t take long to realize that filmmaking and working with actors are pretty much the same anywhere.

“No matter whether you are Chinese, Japanese, American ... I think we all have the same kind of feelings and same kind of emotions. We have so many things people love, some things we don’t like, we all know the same kind of beauty of life. So when I handle American actors or Chinese actors, Japanese or Korean, it’s pretty much the same for me. So I didn’t have any problem. We just ... learn from everyone,” Woo said.

“Red Cliff” is based on the Battle of Red Cliff, which occurred 1,800 years ago. The real event is detailed in “Romance of the Three Kingdoms.” During the Han Dynasty, when the story takes place, China was divided into many warring states. The novel focuses on how three kingdoms - Wei, Wu, Shu - emerged through a century of fierce tactical battles.

Shrewd warlord Cao Cao (played in the film by Zhang Fengyi), de facto leader of the Han Empire, wages war on a western state led by Liu Bei (You Yong). Liu Bei has under his command great soldiers such as Guan Yu, Zhao Yun and Zhang Fei, as well as his deft military adviser, Zhuge Liang (Takeshi Kaneshiro). To protect his subjects, Liu Bei sends Zhuge Liang to convince the southern Wu state led by young Sun Quan (Chang Chen) to form an alliance. During the process, Zhuge Liang lures away Wu’s viceroy Zhou Yu (Tony Leung), with whom he becomes friends. The two stand up to Cao Cao.

“Romance of the Three Kingdoms” is still popular throughout Asia in the form of comics and video games, owing much to the distinctive characters of the warriors.

“I have loved the story since I was about 10 or 12. I started with the comic book ... I so admired the heroes like Liu Bei, Zhao Yun, Guan Yu, Zhuge Liang,” Woo said.

Woo said that one of his favorite stories was the “Battle of Red Cliff.” In it the heroes use their strategic talents, wits and bravery - and a mere 50,000 soldiers - to win the war against Cao Cao’s 800,000-strong army.

Woo’s “Red Cliff” will be told in two parts, with the first installment focusing on the ground battle, which was filmed with more than 1,000 extras, including 200 on horseback. A naval battle will be central to part two, which will hit screens in spring.

The movies cost $80 million - the most expensive Chinese-language films ever made - and Woo himself is said to have spent 1 billion yen out of his pocket.

Woo said he spent two years researching and fine-tuning the script with a team of six writers from China, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Japan.

“I’ve tried to make this film very international,” he said.

The movie has already shown throughout continental Asia, and is now out in Japan. Release dates in the West have yet to be announced. According to, the filmmakers plan to create an edited version of the film for Western audiences in January before seeking a North American distributor.

“I know the Japanese are so familiar with the story. They know all the characters, and they also share a love for the story. I also tried to make the story more interesting to Westerners and help them understand the story. That’s why it took so much time for the script.”

To do so, Woo said he emphasized the characters. “The Western audience has no idea about our history, they don’t know any of the characters. So I had to lighten the historical side of things and put my focus on the characters and humanity throughout the movie. A story about humanity will touch the international audience,” he said.

While the lead characters played by Leung and Kaneshiro are easy to remember, the other warriors - who are popular with fans of the novel, but less so with newcomers - are highlighted through their personalities and unique fighting styles. At first, it can be exhausting and confusing trying to keep up with all the Chinese names and kanji characters, but it gradually becomes easier as each of the characters are distinctive and simply written.

The movie starts with one of the warriors, Zhao Yun (Hu Jun), holding Liu Bei’s baby in one hand as he fends off foes with his acrobatic sword fighting, while the cool-tempered Guan Yu (Ba Sen Zha Bu), deflects a torrent of spears, and aggressive Zhang Fei (Zang Jingsheng) roars to blow his enemies away, literally. The scenes, Woo said, are all taken from the book.

Despite using some mythic details, Woo said reality also was an important consideration for international audiences.

“Especially with action sequences, I didn’t want to use any kung-fu or martial arts elements ... I think it’s a war movie, and war is not fun. So, all the fighting - even all the formation and strategy - it’s got to be real,” he said.

Woo and his stunt coordinators were responsible for creating 95 percent of the fighting styles for the film. They were very much based on the book - albeit adapted on the basis of experience.

“Something we had to come up with was a location. The turtle formation, for example, was invented by Zhuge Liang. But what he invented was so different. His idea for the formation was square. When I got to the location ... it was a little bit sloped and curved, and it was hard to make a square formation on such uneven ground. So we gave it a big round formation, and inside we have a little small, square formation to show a different kind of action and fighting, which is more interesting,” he said.

Woo’s dream of making his favorite Chinese novel into a Hollywood-scale movie only became a reality when he added a bit of himself to the process. “When I came up with the idea, I had to think of what I wanted to do and the message I wanted to send…It has something to do with friendship and loyalty, which is always the theme of my movies.”

Said Woo: “And this movie is about friendship, honor and loyalty. It is my character, and also it’s everybody’s belief. So it is based on history, but it’s also strongly related to our own lives. You can see that the characters are pretty much like us. They are not superheroes, they are not gods. They are humans. That’s my style of movie. Even if it’s an Asian war film, it still has a message of peace.”

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