Red Cliff opens Friday in select theaters

For the first half hour or so, I resisted John Woo’s Red Cliff, his epic account of a series of battles that took place in China in the year 208. It was the time of the Three Kingdomsthe Wei, Shu and Wubefore the Eastern Han dynasty was established. Already, we’re on unfamiliar turf: Most Americans’ grasp of history that old begins and ends with the establishment of Christianity.

But that wasn’t the problem with the early scenes of Red Cliff. Instead, it was the sense of “here we go again” as a stentorian English-language narrator gives us a thumbnail backstory about civil wars, the weak emperor so-and-so and the double-dealing such-and-such, all while Woo’s camera pans across a bewildering array of elaborately costumed generals, viceroys, emperors and courtiers..

Red Cliff represents not only Woo’s first Chinese film (meaning mainland and Mandarin-speaking), but also his first full-blown foray into historical epics. It turns out to be a mode of storytelling that suits him perfectly. Red Cliff exists in a five-hour version that was a massive hit in China; viewers in stateside theaters will have to settle for a two-and-a-half-hour version (although the forthcoming DVD is said to contain the whole thing).

The expository scenes, including an early battle to establish the dastardly intentions of Prime Minister Cao Cao (the great Zhang Fengyi, giving the most nuanced, sensitive reading of an Asian bad guy in memory), had me preparing to consign the film to the dustbin of over-decorated, undermotivated martial arts epics. But then I realized two things: First, Red Cliff isn’t a martial arts filmeven if many of the battle feats require the skills of highly trained stuntmen. Rather, it’s a quote-unquote realistic Hollywood-style historical epic in the mold of Braveheart or Troy.

Second, I recalled that in the early 1990s, at the peak of John Woo’s hipness as a Hong Kong-based maker of such pulp classics as A Better Tomorrow, The Killer, Hard Boiled and Bullet in the Head, I wondered if his predilection for elaborately and operatically choreographed violence, unexamined homoeroticism and slow-motion cutaways to flying birds and other sentimental religious metaphors would wear thin, particularly in his preferred modern settings. Based on his subsequent Hollywood career that was characterized by such weak sisters as Paycheck, Broken Arrow and even Face/Off, I think the answer is yes.

But in a sweeping tale set two millennia ago, we can forgive the two-dimensionality of many of the characters. More important, Woo’s florid, indulgent slo-mo montages, far from being intrusive and cheesy, are the emotional and sensual linchpins of Red Cliff, providing a respite from the strategizing, the rallying of troops and the battling. The cross-cutting action sequences themselves owe just as much to such past masters as Griffith, Ford and Kurosawa as they do to the generation of 300 and Gladiator.

I don’t know how accurate the film is in its depiction of military technology, but it contains enough discussion of weapons and tactics to satisfy the History Channel watcher in all of us. We learn about the “goose formation” and the “tortoise formation,” and we also learn how an army that is short on arrows might replenish its supply while denying the enemy theirs. Then there is the crucial role of wind in planning an assault that uses fire as a weapon: When your script says “wind” to John Woo, you might as well throw “meat” to a ravenous dog. His cameraand editinggoes nuts on images of wind, fire and water, not to mention clouds, rolling fog, the moon, flying paper lanterns and brewing tea.

One of the most memorable of Woo’s ecstatic montages involves a point-of-view tracking shot of a homing pigeon flying from the good guys’ redoubt in the titular Red Cliff to the enemy camp. With the bird in flight, the enemy generals watch a highly skillful, ancient version of soccer, a brave female spy makes observations and the leader of the good guys, Zhou Yu (Tony Leung), practices his swordplay while his wife Xiao Qiao (Chiling Lin), who functions in this story much as Helen did in the tale of Troy (although in China she’s evidently called “the face that sank 2,000 ships”), whispers phrases from The Art of War to him. If Woo keeps making movies as enthralling and pleasurable as this one, he should write a book called The Art of Cinema.