Saturday, November 21, 2009

Epic Failures

Thanksgiving is a celebration of the harvest, of having plenty of food to eat and a feeling of security. But what happens when dark omens appear on the horizon? What happens when the old paradigm dissolves and is replaced by a totally different landscape?

Whether in war, finance, or politics, the arrogance of man knows no bounds. Some people become so obsessed with winning at any cost that they fail to sense the soil shifting beneath them. Some become so resistant to change that they can no longer think outside the box.

History and literature are filled with dark omens.
Unfortunately, not everyone heard what they wanted to hear. According to Wikipedia:
"In Greek mythology, Cassandra was the daughter of King Priam and Queen Hecuba of Troy. Her beauty caused Apollo to grant her the gift of prophecy. In an alternative version, she spent a night at Apollo's temple, at which time the temple snakes licked her ears clean so that she was able to hear the future. This is a recurring theme in Greek mythology, though sometimes it brings an ability to understand the language of animals rather than an ability to know the future. However, when she did not return his love, Apollo placed a curse on her so that no one would ever believe her predictions.
She is a figure both of the epic tradition and of tragedy, where her combination of deep understanding and powerlessness exemplify the tragic condition of humankind. While Cassandra foresaw the destruction of Troy (she warned the Trojans about the Trojan Horse, the death of Agamemnon, and her own demise), she was unable to do anything to forestall these tragedies since they did not believe her."
Today's seers are often religious zealots awaiting the Rapture, conspiracy theorists anticipating doom, or bean counters who use computerized simulations to predict possible outcomes. In an increasing number of scenarios, the final result may be simple and straightforward, but nevertheless shocking.

No one wins. Everyone loses.

This was demonstrated in computer simulations during 1983's WarGames, after a teenage computer hacker named David (Matthew Broderick) challenged a government computer to a game of Global Thermonuclear War. The same message is delivered near the end of John Woo's sumptuously designed new war spectacle, Red Cliff, which opens in theatres on Thanksgiving Day.

* * * * * * *
The first thing to understand about Red Cliff is that it is a pyromaniac's wet dream. If you attend the film with someone who likes to play with matches, he will probably be writhing in ecstasy by the time the final credits start to roll. Second, any script in which an injured warrior who has just been bandaged by his wife says "You wrapped me up like a rice ball" is going to find itself a soft spot in my heart.

Most important, however, is the fact that although Red Cliff is filled with bloody battle scenes and mass carnage, it is a profoundly anti-war film. The villain (who has tried to conquer all of China in order to satisfy his megalomania), suffers a miserable failure. Surprisingly, the audience actually gets to witness the villain analyzing his past victories and wondering what could have possibly gone wrong.

Woo's film ends on a note of peace and friendship between the strategists for two rival warlords whose united forces have defeated the villain's much larger army. Based on The Romance of The Three Kingdoms (written by Luo Guanzhong in the 14th century), the main characters in Red Cliff are as follows:
  • General Cao Cao (Zhang Fengyi) is a ruthless and power hungry Prime Minister who seeks to conquer all the warring factions of China. When his navy has problems with seasickness, his commanders develop a plan to lock his ships together so that they won't pitch and roll. When his army is stricken with typhoid fever, he sends the infectious corpses across the river in one of the earliest known uses of biological warfare.
  • Liu Bei (You Yong) is a warlord in the north who, while trying to protect a large population of refugees in the early part of the film, suffers a crushing defeat at the hands of Cao Cao's brutal and massive army. Liu Bei is forced to retreat.
  • Sun Quan (Chang Chen) is a warlord in the south, whose territory is high on Cao Cao's list of desired conquests.
  • Zhuge Liang (Takeshi Kaneshiro) is Liu Bei's military strategist. A man of exceptional intelligence who has studied nature, history, and the philosophy of war, Zhuge Liang knows that the only hope for Lui Bei's survival is to form an alliance with his rival warlord, Sun Quan. His use of the ancient tortoise formation as a combat tactic helps to win the decisive battle of Red Cliff.
  • Zhou Yu (Tony Leung Chiu-Wai) is Sun Quan's Grand Viceroy, a trusted advisor and revered war hero.
  • Xiao Qiao (Chi-ling Lin) is Zhou Yu's quiet, obedient, pregnant, and extremely intelligent wife -- a woman who has more than one trick up her sleeve. A long time ago, when she posed for an artist, her beauty captured the heart of Cao Cao (who expects that, after vanquishing Sun Quan, he will inherit Xiao Qiao as a trophy of war).
  • Sun Shiangxiang (Wei Zhao) is Zhou Yu's younger sister, who considers herself as strong and warlike as any of Sun Quan's soldiers. After disguising herself, she manages to infiltrate General Cao Cao's army as a spy and send back valuable information via carrier pigeon.
An underlying theme in Red Cliff is the ultimate advantage of brains over brawn. Whether employing the eight trigrams formation in land battle, launching an espionage operation, or trusting his years of environmental studies, Zhuge Liang's intellectual strength helps him devise winning strategies that can be implemented by Zhou Yu's soldiers.

Zhou Yu's wife and sister use their own style of intelligence, artifice, and art to deliver invaluable information back to Zhou Yu and, when necessary, use their feminine wiles to stall for time as Sun Quan's forces wait for the wind to change direction. In his director's statement, John Woo notes:
"We have all seen Hollywood’s epic blockbusters. We, as an audience, are deeply moved by the grand imagery and heart-pounding sound achieved through modern technologies. The world’s audiences have also enjoyed the various genres of Chinese cinema, including kung-fu, action, and drama. However, Chinese historical epics are rarely depicted with the scale and technique that is found in Hollywood blockbusters. Chinese cinema contains much of our cultural heritage, including the spirit of the martial arts. Using the medium of cinema, we are able to express our ideals and culture through different layers. These thoughts led me to make a film about the heroes of the Three Kingdoms outside of the martial arts genre. It is a film I had long dreamed of making, ever since I read about the heroes from that glorious time in history.

The story of Red Cliff took place 1,800 years ago in China. It was a battle bearing significant historical importance. Through the widely told tales of the battle, we learned of the great intelligence and bravery of the ancient people of China who, though gravely outnumbered, managed to defeat their enemies. I believe, that by working with our talented teams and utilizing recent technological advances, we are able to create this epic tale in a film on the same scale as a Hollywood blockbuster.

Through on-location filming and post-production special effects, we recreated the realism of the ancient battlefield. Such visual spectacle has never been seen on the Chinese screen. My goal is for this film to rise above cultural and historical barriers, so that the Western audience feels as if they are watching an Asian Troy while the Eastern audience can discover new perspectives on a familiar story. I also wanted to prove that here in China we are capable of creating an epic film of the same caliber as a Hollywood production."
While Red Cliff is filled with battle scenes, the emotional and intellectual characteristics of its heroes differ markedly from those found in Western war films. According to Woo:
"For me, the most attractive aspects of Romance of the Three Kingdoms are not the supernatural characters idealized by the novel, but the true heroism the characters show. The world has many kinds of heroes, but I like heroes that are real and human. I see many similarities between my idea of what a hero should be and the characters of Three Kingdoms.

I genuinely believe that human emotion is universal and not bound by culture. The same values of virtue, morality, and friendship are praised in the West just as they are in the East. Though these feelings are expressed in different ways, deep inside we all essentially share the same emotions. With this in mind, I disregarded a great deal of the details in the book when I made Red Cliff.

Takeshi Kineshiro as Zhuge Liang

I truly wished to make a film that could be enjoyed by audiences all over the world. Inside my heart, film knows no boundary. While audiences in the East love many great movies from the West, Western audiences also appreciate the splendid culture of the East. Therefore, I genuinely hope that when you watch Red Cliff you do not look at it as a Chinese film or a Hollywood film, but as a global film."

Because Woo was adamant about remaining as faithful as possible to historical details, Oscar-winning production and costume designer Tim Yip (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon) and his team did an enormous amount of research on architecture, costumes, ships, weaponry, and other props specific to the film’s setting. As Yip notes:

"We had to reconstruct these huge historical images and imbue them with a dynamic rhythm to make them come alive. I approached Red Cliff in two different ways. First, I wanted to do things on a huge scale with great atmosphere, similar to classical Chinese painting. Second, I wanted to make everything very detailed and accurate and spent a great deal of time looking at every known artifact from the Warring States period. These details enlivened the design, and many are also symbolic of the period. The Han dynasty is known, on the one hand, for its large scale and imposing manner, but also for its elegant details. We paid special attention to accurately recreating those details.

Fengyi Zhang as General Cao Cao

We consulted with many history experts specializing in different fields, including construction, military affairs, the legal system, weapons, clothes, and the lifestyles of the people of the time, including both peasants and aristocrats. I also personally traveled to Japan to meet with experts there on the Warring States period, where I found additional information on the ways to make armor and ancient weapons, which was extremely helpful."

Tony Leung Chiu-Wai as Zhou Yu

The following collage of costume sketches, marketing posters, and photos offers a better chance to appreciate some of Yip's production design (as well as Red Cliff's musical score) than most of the action-packed trailers and clips from the film:

Some interesting facts to keep in mind about Woo's lush visual feast and gripping military epic:
  • Red Cliff was first immortalized in the classic Chinese novel Romance of the Three Kingdoms. Although written over 700 years ago, the novel is still widely read all over Asia and has spawned more than a dozen video games and numerous comic books. When making a movie about the Three Kingdoms, one has to include important military figures, such as generals Zhao Yun, Zhang Fei, and Guan Yu (who is worshipped as a god in many Asian countries).
  • Although the precise location of Red Cliff’s battlefield has been the subject of both popular and academic debates, it has never been conclusively established.
  • The course and length of the Yangtze River have changed drastically since 208 AD and the names of the key locations have changed throughout the years. In 1998, the city of Puqi in Hubei Province was renamed Chibi City (Red Cliff City), in a direct attempt to tie the location to the historical battlefield. Assuming that was the real location of the Battle of Red Cliff, the amount of river traffic made it impossible for Woo to film there. The local geography was also vastly different from what the filmmaker had imagined for his movie.
  • The scene of Zhuge Liang’s “borrowing of the enemy’s arrows with the straw boats” was taken directly from the novel.
  • The huge art department for the production of Red Cliff at one point consisted of more than 1,000 designers, carpenters, construction workers, seamstresses, prop men and shipbuilders.
  • The battle of San Jiang Kuo required more than 1,000 foot soldiers, 300 horses, 300 horsemen, and more than 700 crew members.
  • The planning for the naval battle segment of the film took more than a year and required that 18 full-scale ships be built on location (due to their size, it would have been too difficult to transport them to the reservoir where filming took place). The construction of the ships took eight months (from October 2006 to May 2007) and the largest ship was more than 125 feet long. At the same time, four large floating docks were built on the same site. Many boats were built in a nearby shipyard and transported to the reservoir. The remaining 2,000 ships were created digitally.
  • A studio executive in the United States suggested combining several generals on the allies’ side into one person (an idea which, for Western audiences, would have been like combining President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Great Britain's Prime Minister, Sir Winston Churchill, and France's President Charles de Gaulle into one person when making a movie about World War II).
  • Woo created two versions of Red Cliff: a two-part, five-hour version for Asian audiences and a single 2-1/2 hour version for Western audiences.

Red Cliff delivers fully on its promise of spectacle, history, and epic scale. After nearly 2-1/2 hours of battle scenes that never grow tedious, it's fascinating to look back on Woo's film and note some of its more artistic touches.

Western audiences that have grown accustomed to ultra-machismo, testosterone-laden war epics might may be surprised at how a cleverly prolonged tea ceremony can have major strategic consequences. The concept of a military strategist who understands the signs and symptoms of changing weather (as opposed to overzealous military types who can't wait for battle to commence) may seem alien to audiences that prefer their heroes to shoot first and ask questions later.

One should not think for a moment that there isn't plenty of combat in Woo's film. The film's final message (that in huge conflicts, no army truly wins -- and that it is better to be allies and friends rather than bitter enemies) may disappoint teenagers who have grown addicted to violent video games. But for the older, sadder, and wiser members of the audience, the only thing missing at the end of Woo's film was a long and passionate kiss between Tony Leung and Takeshi Kaneshiro before Zhuge Liang heads home with a cute new pony. Here's the trailer:

* * * * * * * * *
During a visit to my doctor several years ago, I mentioned that I did not expect to live into my 80s or 90s. He promptly asked if I would be willing to be examined for depression and, having nothing else to do that week, I agreed.

I did, however, remind my doctor that there is a very big difference between being clinically depressed and being profoundly lazy (I have no doubt which characteristic describes me to a tee). My interview with the Kaiser psychiatrist went very smoothly and he agreed that I was not at all depressed.

Although I'm not necessarily a gloom-and-doom type of person, anyone who knows me understands that my nearly infantile optimism is balanced by a strong cynical streak. I stressed to the psychiatrist that I had a nasty suspicion that, between global warming, unstable financial markets, and some ugly political realities, a time might soon arrive when many Americans could no longer afford to keep on living.

Mind you, this was before the Enron debacle, before the subprime mortgage crisis, before President George W. Bush signed into law the Emergency Economic Stabilization Act of 2008 and before Barack Obama won the 2008 Presidential election. While there is now greater hope that the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 may be able to stop some of the bleeding, far too many people have been willing to trivialize the massive shit storm President Obama inherited from the previous administration.

During the years when I was trying to support myself as a freelance writer, I learned to give up a lot of the creature comforts and personal accessories that are frequently deemed necessary by people who simply can't stop shopping. When Enron imploded and its employees lost their retirement savings, I began to realize that I would not be alone in the coming years as people saw their buying power evaporate into thin air.

When last year's financial crisis struck, I was extremely grateful that I don't have a car to maintain, children to support, or a McMansion that might be subject to foreclosure. Having finally paid off a huge amount of credit card debt, I had learned to live a much simpler life.

Still, nothing can send frissons of terror through one's nervous system like the threat of watching the world (as we have known it) disappear into a black hole. I'm not talking about the hysterical rantings of a media clown like Glenn Beck. I'm talking about monetary systems, physical infrastructure, and entire transportation systems grinding to a halt because nobody can afford anything anymore.

As I watched a new documentary entitled Collapse (in which Michael Ruppert functions as a modern-day Cassandra), I was neither shocked nor horrified by his predictions. A former police investigator and freelance journalist, Ruppert is the man who, in 1977, revealed that the CIA was extensively involved in illegal drug trafficking. His book, Crossing The Rubicon: The Decline of the American Empire at the End of the Age of Oil, was published in 2004. Ruppert also claims to have helped to break the story on the military coverup of Pat Tillman's death by friendly fire.

Ruppert's theories are based on the fact that we have already passed the point of peak oil and are heading toward a level of consumption that is simply unsustainable. If assessed honestly, the math should be simple enough to understand: The world's supply of petroleum has now hit the point where it is ruled by the law of diminishing returns. No amount publicity or "feel good" spin can change that.

Over the years, Ruppert has tried to warn Congress and lots of other people about the financial crisis that is about to reshape America's future. Unfortunately, he has run into even more resistance than former Vice President Al Gore. Just like Evilene in The Wiz, the theme song for many Americans is "Don't Nobody Bring Me No Bad News."

The question then becomes: Is Chris Smith's documentary a film you should see?
  • Obviously, it lacks the slick CGI special effects that brought Roland Emmerich's popular disaster movie, 2012 (which had a production budget of $200 million) nearly $242 million in domestic and international box office revenues in its first six days before the public.
  • Nor does Collapse have a pounding score designed to drive terror into your heart.
  • Instead, it offers audiences a heaping dose of icy cold fear wrapped in a pile of inconvenient truths.
Visually, this is not a great film to watch. Much of the archival footage is quite old (and probably all the filmmaker could afford to acquire on a very low budget). However, I did enjoy watching footage of the R.M.S. Titanic leaving Southampton on its ill-fated maiden voyage in April of 1912.

Most of this movie is little more than an interview with a very intelligent curmudgeon, underwritten with music that sounds like, but has probably not been composed by Philip Glass.

Some critics are suggesting that Chris Smith's Collapse is a far more important documentary than Michael Moore's infuriating, albeit highly entertaining Capitalism: A Love Story. I would offer a different comparison.

If you want thrills and chills accompanied by fake heroism, heart-stopping music, and fabulous visuals, go see 2012. However, if you truly want to get the shit scared out of you, go see Collapse. Smith's "little film that could" has zero entertainment value. Nor is it for the faint of heart. Here's the trailer:

1 comment:

Victoria Dixon said...

I enjoyed your take on Red Cliffs and wanted to say Thanks. Your blog came up on my Google news search for "Romance of the Three Kingdoms," in case you're wondering. I've written a fantasy based on the original 14th century novel and want to keep my ears out for news on the topic while I try to find an agent. ;D Anyway, thanks for the quote from Woo. Much of what he said also applies to why I wrote my book, too. I just might quote him on my blog, one of these days.