We don't doubt John Woo's ability to make an epic battle-film in Chinese. But dubbing - now that is a whole new animal.
A new language can sometimes, depending on the audience, completely transform the mood of a film. As we discover in the 2Â½ hour English version of the 4-hour, 2-part Chinese blockbuster, Red Cliff. Indian audiences will find that the dubbing artists sound very, very like they are from the bagal vaali
gully. They stress their hard consonants and speak in an almost-Hindi accent. Throw in the uncut tresses piled in tasteful buns on their heads, and some of the 200 AD Chinese warriors in this film could pass off as Santa Singh of Patiala.
With the result that the Hyderabadi audience titters at all the wrong times in the movie. Plus, there are parts in Red Cliff that are actually corny. Like when a warrior's wife bandages his wounds with rather elaborate pomp and ceremony. She bends over erotically while he moans suggestively with pain (pleasure?).
Also, the dialogue is loaded with metaphors from an ancient age, translated wonkily into English - a minefield of corniness. Imagine a king slicing off the edge of a table and barking ferociously to his subjects in an accent of unknown origin, "Dare anyone speak further of surrendering, he shall end like this table." You can't be sure if you are in a war film or an episode of Mind Your Language.
But unintentional side-effects apart, Red Cliff has all the thrill and intrigue of a good historical war film. Like you would expect from a story set in 200 AD, it is as much about individual martial prowess as the military might of armies. While the film is based on an actual battle that occurred in China at the end of the Han Dynasty, many of its sub-plots are fiction. And so, there is as much gritty realism in the film as there are unreal, maverick stunts.
On one hand there are sweaty, seasick and bleeding armies grappling with epidemics and new battle-terrains. And on the other there is a blustering tom-boy of a princess on an unlikely espionage mission leaking enemy secrets through a homing pigeon. It is this combination of the real and the fantastic that makes Red Cliff absorbing. The film is at once a tragic and glorifying account of war.
The Battle of Red Cliffs happened in China when southern warlords Liu Bei (Yong Yu in the film) and Sun Quan (Chen Chang) joined forces to defend the southlands from the ravaging armies of Chau Chau (Fengyi Zang) who had already conquered most of the north. Their armies were not equally matched, with Chau Chau boasting 800,000 men while the allies had a fraction of the numbers.
Like in any good underdog story, the tables turn and Chau Chau is handed a crushing defeat. Through a delightful mix of trickery and honest-to-goodness derring-do, the allies have the audience cheering for them. Chau Chau's army mostly comprises an infantry and cavalry that are unused to naval warfare. So approaching the enemy lands in a fleet of ships along the Yangtze proves a disastrous proposition. The allies take advantage of this and force them into a retreat.
John Woo makes good use of modern cinematography to elevate the scenes from this millennia-old war to the visual grandeur of Star Wars. Endless waves of battleships cruising along the Yellow River are a treat to watch. So are throngs of soldiers milling around in intricate formations. Scenes like the stealing of 100,000 arrows from Chau Chau's army are quite chuckle-inducing. The allies fool the enemy into shooting arrows at dummy straw soldiers under the cover of fog. They then retrieve the arrows to use them right back at Chau Chau leaving the audience hooting with mirth.
The acting by Tony Leung, Gengy Ziang and the very-easy-on-the-eye Takeshi Kaneshiro (as Zhuge Lieng, chief advisor to Liu Bei) is perfect for their parts as well. Now if only we could understand Chinese, the dialogue would not have seemed so stilted. Such dubbing-potholes apart, you might find it worth your while to watch this war-drama that has become such a raging hit in China.
For war-film buffs, this is regular fare in an exotic new setting. You saw the Greeks doing it in Troy
, the Christians in Kingdom Of Heaven
, and preternatural beings in Lord Of The Rings
. Now catch the Chinese have a go at it in Red Cliff - it is but the logical next step.