John Woo, man of action

John Woo never gave up on Hollywood. If anything, it was the other way around.

Following the twin disasters of “Windtalkers” (2002) and “Paycheck” (2003) — big-budget productions that bombed at the box office — the Chinese-born director, 63, had a hard time finding English-language scripts smart enough to pique his interest.

So rather than compromising his talents, Woo went home again to make “Red Cliff,” a thrilling Chinese-language war epic drawing its inspiration from his homeland’s rich history.

True to form, Woo spared no expense for his latest offering, investing his own money in the project after exhausting his initial $80 million budget.

His gamble paid off: Last year, “Red Cliff” sank James Cameron’s “Titanic,” becoming the highest-grossing movie in Chinese history.
Now, after serious editing — the American version clocks in at 2½ hours, roughly half the length of his original five-hour cut — “Red Cliff” has arrived in Bay Area theaters.

“I’m very happy with the American version,” he says. “It has the same spirit as the original, and that’s very important. All the action is still there; none of that was cut. The biggest difference is that Asian audiences are much more familiar with this period of history [at the end of the Han Dynasty], so we believed we could take more time developing the central characters. For Americans, we stuck to a more straightforward storyline.”

Woo acknowledges that it’s easier to make a movie in China, “where the director is everything, even more than the stars,” because he’s free to follow his muse without interference from investors.

There, his backers have confidence enough to leave him alone. In Hollywood, he says, it’s impossible to make a movie without having constant meetings with meddlesome studio executives — a serious drawback for a man who prefers less talk and more action.

“I’m not a huge fan of dialogue,” he says with a laugh. “I like making beautiful action sequences, the way Akira Kurosawa did. But when my characters fight, there’s always a reason. There is a human story driving the conflict, and real emotion that motivates them. That’s true in all my movies, whether it’s ‘The Killer’ or ‘Face/Off.’”

Despite the unprecedented box-office success he’s enjoyed in China, and the creative freedoms afforded him away from Hollywood, Woo says he’s not finished filming in America.

“I made movies in Hollywood for 16 years,” he says. “I still love it there, and I’ll be back. But I decided it was time for a break from that system. ‘Red Cliff’ gave me that and more.”

IF YOU GO

Red Cliff

Starring Tony Leung, Chiu Wai, Takeshi Kaneshiro, Wei Zhao, Chen Chang, Shido Nakamura, Fengyi Zhang
Written by Khan Chan, Cheng Kuo, Heyu Sheng, John Woo
Directed by John Woo
Rated R
Running time 2 hours 28 minutes

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