Chinese cliffhanger

Dec 12, 2008
*Special to asia!

Beijing may have pressured Chow Yun-Fat to return to the John Woo film "Red Cliff", raising questions of who he will replace.

There is an old saying in China: "When it comes to money, friendship goes out the window". Tell that to director John Woo and his very good friend, Chow Yun-Fat.

Woo is the director of "Red Cliff", a new Chinese movie that tells the story of the most famous battle in Chinese history, which took place in the second century BCE during the period called The Three Kingdoms. On the first day of shooting, Chow walked off the set. He didn't give any reason.

Both Woo and Chow belong to that rare breed: Chinese who can write their own ticket in Hollywood. Woo has directed blockbusters such as "Face/Off" (starring John Travolta and Nicholas Cage) and "Mission Impossible 2" (with Tom Cruise). Chow featured in "Pirates of the Caribbean 3" as a wizard, mouthing incantations (actually a famous Chinese poem which he recited in Cantonese).

The rift between the two men created a huge commotion in Hong Kong and China. Surprisingly, it has also become a matter of concern in Beijing. It is said that Chinese leaders, including  President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao, are paying close attention to the development.

"Red Cliff" is the most expensive Chinese movie ever. Its budget of US$80 million is nearly double that of Zhang Yimou's "The Curse of the Golden Flower". Most of the money comes from the China Film Group and other bodies owned by the Chinese government. It is an open secret that Hu and Wen want "Red Cliff" to open in late July 2008, to build up the momentum for the opening of the Beijing Olympics on August 8.

"Red Cliff is a movie that cannot be allowed to fail," said a commentary in Next, a Chinese-language Hong Kong weekly that often features articles attacking the Chinese government.

It is also a movie that could enshrine Hu in the Chinese hierarchy. The protagonists of "Red Cliff" are the meek Liu Bei and the aggressive Cao Cao. Cao came to attack Liu and his allies with overwhelming force, but was defeated by Liu who had right on his side and used wit to defeat Cao’s might. This could be seen as a reflection of Hu, a meek-mannered man, and his more forceful predecessor, Jiang Zemin, who still wields considerable power in China.

The Chinese love to measure success by numbers. "The Curse of Golden Flower" took in a record 300 million yuan in China. "Red Cliff"' will have to double that, for Beijing to be satisfied. International acclaim will also be vital.

To achieve all that, "Red Cliff" needs all the big names it can find. A sad truth of the Chinese movie industry, which just celebrated its 100th anniversary, is that there are perhaps only half a dozen names that could be considered A-list. One can think of Chow, Gong Li, Jet Li, Jackie Chan, Zhang Ziyi, Michelle Yeoh, Tony Leung Chiu-wai, Maggie Cheung, and that is about all.

Of them all, Woo only managed to get Tony Leung and Chow to star in "Red Cliff". Leung had initially agreed to play the role of strategist Zhuge Liang, but changed his mind before the cast was finalised. Rumour was that he considered the role too minor, though Leung’s explanation was that it was too similar to a recent role he played and he did not want to be typecast. The role was taken by Taiwanese-Japanese actor Takeshi Kaneshiro, a popular heartthrob but no acting heavyweight.

This left Chow as the main draw for the movie. Chow’s walk-off was thus a major blow to Woo, as well as to the ambition of the Chinese government to promote the film industry.

One week, it's been said, is a long time in politics. In movieland, it is even longer. No sooner had Chow turned his back on "Red Cliff" than Woo received a call from Leung, solicitous and offering "to help in whatever way he can".

It took Woo virtually no time to make up his mind about Leung’s offer, and truth be told, he was left with little choice. He offered Leung the role that was to be played by Chow, that of the general Zhou Yu. Leung accepted with alacrity, and "Red Cliff" was again led by a name recognised by Hollywood.

What happened between Woo and Chow has been discussed to death. The two were old partners and it was Woo’s casting of Chow as a trench-coat-wearing, gun-toting gangster in the 1986 Hong Kong classic "A Better Tomorrow" that made Chow an icon. The two had worked seamlessly for years and were generally considered to be the best of friends, until now.

Chow, after keeping quiet for a period, finally said he left because he was given the script too late. Terence Chang, the producer, disagreed and leaked out the news that Chow had insisted on conditions that were not acceptable.

"Ah Fat (Chow) and I are still good friends. It is just that there often comes a time when a partnership needs to split. Of course it may come back again," Woo said at the first press conference of "Red Cliff".

He might have been more prophetic than he realised. Talk is rife that Beijing has decided to intervene directly to ensure that "Red Cliff" does not suffer the same fate as "The Curse of the Golden Flower", which fell flat on its face the moment it left the protective environment of China.

"Someone, somewhere, approached Chow to persuade him to change his mind," said a report in Hong Kong. Chow is happily working in Hollywood — he even has his own action figure from "Pirates", and a cut of its sales — but he could not ignore an overt request from Beijing. The latest news, or rumour, is that Chow is now ready to return to "Red Cliff", though it begs the question which character he could play since all the major roles have been taken.

"('Red Cliff') has 400 characters," Wen Wengli, a spokesman for the China Film Group, said. The Chinese movie world is waiting with bated breath to see who will be bumped off the set to make way for Chow.


lee han shihLee Han Shih is the founder, publisher and editor of asia! Magazine.


Contact Han Shih