Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Movies: Red Cliff 2

"This is the emotional part," the elderly Chinese woman said to her husband in Shanghainese, as translated to me by my friend and tour guide.

Zhao Wei, who has spent the majority of the movie dressed as a male soldier, spying on the enemy, reunites with her only friend from the other side, right on the battlefield. He doesn't recognize her since she's no longer in costume, but she reminds him "I'm Piggy!" and, at the moment joyous recognition spreads across his face, he freezes, his back shot with arrows.

And indeed, it was the emotional part: we both burst into spontaneous tears. She was sniffling, and I was sticking my fingers up behind my glasses to wipe at my running makeup.

That was the only emotional part in this epic war film, based on the Three Kingdoms period in Chinese history (a good reminder that I know too little Chinese history), in which a group of regional warlords band together to overthrow the Emperor's power-hungry Prime Minister Cao Cao. The natural leader, played by Tony Leung, is the classic Chinese epic hero, well-versed in war and sword-dancing, but also music and love-making (we intimate, based on his wife's fluttering attentions (Xiao Qiao, the consummate fetish object). His partner to the death is the mystical reader of the winds, played by Takeshi Kaneshiro, who helps the cause with his cleverness (not only tricking the enemy into giving them the hundred thousand arrows they need to fight by sending straw-covered ships in the foggy night masked as attackers, but also predicting a shift in wind that allows them to burn Cao Cao's entire fleet). We know both of these actors from Wong Kar Wai movies, in which their performances are far more subtle, but director John Woo is hardly the master of the same—particularly not in movies for Chinese audiences.

Yes, I saw this movie in China, at an IMAX theatre where you are assigned seats when you buy tickets, and where people talked (not loudly, but still) and texted throughout the feature. I hadn't expected to be able to follow the movie at all (it being in Mandarin), but the theatre kindly (or unkindly, if you are Chinese, as most of the audience was) provided subtitles, in both languages. So much for my experiment in total language immersion. . .

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