Woo-Hoo! Hong Kong Auteur Sinks Titanic with Red Cliffs

Hong Kong action auteur John Woo has always made huge movies, but with his latest, the war epic Red Cliff, he managed to sink the Titanic. In 2008 it surpassed the James Cameron mega-hit, becoming the highest-grossing movie ever in China. Now, after a brief delay, it’s coming to America.

Mr. Woo is best known stateside for Face/Off and Mission: Impossible II: movies that combine balletic, slow-motion fight sequences with prodigious body counts. With Mr. Woo, the question is never if hordes of people will die, but how.

Red Cliff
, screened on  Monday, Oct. 13, at Asia Society ahead of its release on Nov. 18, tackles the Battle of Red Cliffs in 208 A.D., during which a virtuous but outnumbered Chinese army repelled an attack from a power-hungry invader. Everyone in China knows this story; it’s the subject of romance novels, comic books, and even video games. Mr. Woo said he spent the past 20 years thinking about the project, especially about its culminating naval battle. 

“I grew up with the story, and there were so many heroes I admired,” he said during an interview onstage following the screening. “The burning ship scene—to put that onscreen is every director’s dream. That kind of scene has never been done in Chinese movie history.”

The film marks several firsts in Asian cinema. Its $80 million budget made it the most expensive Asian movie ever produced. Mr. Woo noted that one scene, in which the camera follows a dove on a two-minute flight across two army encampments, was the costliest CGI shot ever filmed. The movie became a national project: The Chinese government lent up to 1,500 soldiers to the production to play extras and, at times, to build temporary roads on location. Mr. Woo chuckled when he said he felt more like a general than a director.

After a long career in Hong Kong and Hollywood, what drew Mr. Woo to China?

“Five years ago I met several young people from China, and they have a great passion about movies,” he said. “They worked very hard and were very talented and wanted to work on a Hollywood-type of movie. I thought it was about time to bring what I learned in Hollywood to the young people of China.”

The serious subject doesn’t keep Mr. Woo from having some fun. The audience alternatively winced or squealed with delight at the movie’s outlandish stunts: a man fighting off 20 attackers with an infant strapped on his back, or another wielding a flaming whip above his head. Seemingly thousands of extras are impaled with spears, gouged with arrows or engulfed in flames. Yet there are lighter moments as well. Two military geniuses take a break from war games to duel in a rousing jam session on the guqin, a zither-like stringed instrument. Later, a stoic general teases his wife as she bandages his wounds: “You wrapped me up like a rice ball.”

During a reception after the movie, a crowd gathered round the diminutive director, clamoring for autographs. The Transom beat through and asked: How did filming Red Cliff compare to his previous experiences?

“I was much happier working in China,” Mr. Woo said. “Everything was so simple. I walked into the office and let them know I wanted to make a movie called Red Cliff, and they said, ‘O.K., let’s do it.’ In Hollywood, it just takes a much longer time to set up a project and you have to listen to so many people. There are so many meetings.”

And what about beating Titanic?

“Just by a little,” he said, squeezing two fingers together to demonstrate the margin.

Woo-Hoo! Hong Kong Auteur Sinks Titanic with Red Cliffs