When I first heard that the Detroit Film Theatre would open its Winter 2010 season with a 4 1/2-hour movie, I had mixed feelings about committing so much time to one film. But when the 271 minutes of Red Cliff—The Complete Director’s Cut ended on January 17, 2010, I was glad I’d come down to the DFT for this dramatic and moving film from China.
It was truly an epic, with a compelling story that was driven by sweeping camera movements and emotionally powerful music. By the end of the film, I had become familiar with many memorable characters who will stay with me for a long time.
More than anything, it was another completely unique DFT experience, re-affirming the audience’s faith in the DFT’s commitment and ability to bring to Detroit area filmgoers cinematic treasures that stretch the boundaries of moviemaking. This was the American premiere of this full-length version of The Red Cliff, which earlier had been released in America in a much shorter version. I’ve always admired how the DFT keeps looking for ways to innovate and stand apart from other film theaters.
Before Red Cliff, I wondered how to prepare myself to get the most out of the movie. I read up on the Han Dynasty, and its significance in Chinese history. It seemed to be a successful period for the Chinese, with the promotion of education, technological advances, economic activity with neighboring countries, and the revival of Confucianism. But the ads for Red Cliff said it was about the end of this dynasty. I was curious to see how this came about.
I tried to sneak in a little extra rest before heading down to the DFT. I worked to put myself in a patient frame of mind, and I felt more tolerant than usual waiting in line to get into the DIA parking lot and to get some lunch at the Crystal Gallery Café.
The day before, I had spent five continuous hours in the microfilm area of the Harlan Hatcher Graduate Library at the University of Michigan, doing some research for this web site. When I realized what I done, after all that time of intense research, I felt more confident about making it through Red Cliff.
Some different questions came to mind. How would I pace myself as I watched the movie? How would I block out the outside world? How often should I look at my watch?
What were my expectations? It would be a historical epic, similar in scope to classic films like Lawrence of Arabia and Ben Hur. I would get completely immersed in the history and culture of another country. It was a strong opening film for the DFT’s new schedule. After it was over, I would have the unique feeling of saying that I had done it.
I had been tempted to put off going to Red Cliff, until maybe the next weekend, but I thought, I’ve researched the history of the movie, I’ve blocked out Sunday afternoon for it, and now was the time to see it.
What helped convince me to see Red Cliff was the fact that it would be directed by John Woo, who was best known for his exciting action movies. He would probably keep things moving fairly rapidly, I thought.
Ironically, what I liked least about Red Cliff was the repetitive, graphic violence that didn’t add much impact to the plot, unlike, say, the quick flurry of shocking violence at the end of The Godfather. I turned away from the screen several times, amazed and repulsed by the advances in special effects that enable filmmakers to show the many different ways that an arrow or spear can go through someone’s body.
Before the movie, DIA film curator Elliot Wilhelm talked about how the DFT would be showing “the complete Red Cliff as envisioned by John Woo, and that played in all of Asia and much of Europe.” Applause greeted his announcement that this was the American premiere of the full version of Red Cliff. He explained that the shortened 2 1/2-hour American version removed a lot of the characterization.
In my humble opinion, about 30 minutes of action could have been cut out, without interfering with the story. But the remaining four hours were all essential to understanding the film. I can’t imagine what was removed to make it more palatable to certain tastes. American viewers of the shortened version of the film missed about two hours of quality filmmaking.
The Whole Thing
But DFT visitors got to see the entire film, which had all of the elements of a classic epic. The swooping camera shots that continually revealed details about the plot, the settings, and the different characters. The powerfully emotional music that was perfectly in sync with the camera movements and plot developments. The carefully drawn out characters and plot lines that continually kept our interest.
There was something for everyone. Action for the fans of John Woo. Epic breadth for lovers of long, ambitious films. Much local detail for admirers of movies about China. Although Red Cliff was much more commercial than other Chinese films shown at the DFT, it still had many exquisitely rendered moments of quiet beauty that gave the movie much depth and feeling.
And when it was over, there was hearty applause that showed no sign of weariness. Out in the lobby, satisfied customers talked happily about this shared experience. Several days after the film, it still stirs my imagination.
Copyright © 2010 by Robert Hollberg Smith, Jr.