Takeshi then and now: The Warlords, Red Cliff and the aesthetics of dirt

January 1, 2009 at 7:08 pm 7 comments

His role in The House of Flying Daggers (2004, dir. Zhang Yimou) notwithstanding, Takeshi Kaneshiro has almost always appeared in modern-day movies. But in 2007 he was cast in two prominent historical dramas, The Warlords (dir. Peter Chan) and Red Cliff (dir. John Woo). How did Takeshi’s decidedly modern visage affect these two Hong Kong costume dramas? The results in each film are somewhat different and are a telling indication of perceptions of Chinese films in Asia and in the West.

Movie kings dirty up, The Warlords, 2007

Movie kings dress down, The Warlords, 2007

In The Warlords, Peter Chan’s gritty, realistic flick about a 19th century Qing Dynasty power struggle, Takeshi and his equally famous and glamorous co-stars Jet Li and Andy Lau are called upon to play their parts clad in animal skins and splattered with blood, sweat and mud. Jet Li reportedly gained weight and dirtied up to play his part (and was rewarded with his very first Best Actor statue at the 2008 Hong Kong Film Awards); he and the usually dapper Andy Lau also shaved their heads and grew scruffy beards for the film. At the start of the film Li vomits convincingly and Andy Lau has sex still dressed in his war togs.

Takeshi in furs, The Warlords, 2007

Takeshi in furs, The Warlords, 2007

Takeshi, however, did not shave his head, though he did sport a tidy beard. Still, it was hard to spot Takeshi-the-movie-star in this flick, due to the strength of the film’s mise-en-scene. The film’s blood-caked impalings, stabbings and general fisticuffs, and its evocative smoky-toned cinematography overcame Takeshi’s good looks and he managed to fit into the overall rough-hewn look of the movie despite being one of the most beautiful people on the planet.

In Red Cliff, however, the film’s art direction is much less down-and-dirty and much more stylized and this somehow makes Takeshi’s perfect nose and expensive haircut more anachronistic than in Peter Chan’s film. John Woo’s film aims for the heroic, not the realistic, and here Takeshi’s Prada-model gorgeousness shines a bit too brightly for a period piece. Although co-star Tony Leung Chi-Wai cuts no less a handsome figure, he’s a bit stronger actor and is a little more convincing as a third-century Chinese warrior. Tony also gets to wear armour and swing a sword in a big fighting scene, whereas Takeshi watches on the sidelines in pristine, flowing white robes without a hair out of place.

Pristine Takeshi, Red Cliff, 2008

Pristine Takeshi, Red Cliff, 2008

Somehow Takeshi’s overt modernity works against him much more in Red Cliff than in The Warlords and this is underscored by each films’ respective directorial vision. Peter Chan’s film feels much more in step with current Chinese cinematic trends, moving away from superficial heroic images towards a deeper, more serious critique (in the same way that Johnnie To’s Election 1 & 2 completely deglamorized the Triad film, in contrast to the gauzy romantic fantasies of gangster brotherhood from Andrew Lau’s Young & Dangerous series). In comparison, John Woo’s film seems like a nostalgic, old-fashioned look backwards at classic Shaw Brothers and 1990s wuxia productions. Interestingly, a truncated version of Red Cliff is slated to open in the U.S. and Europe in 2009 while The Warlords has not received distribution outside of Asia. This perhaps reflects outdated perceptions of Hong Kong films in the West, where the most recognizable HK actor is the long-dead Bruce Lee and most viewers relate Chinese films to out-of-sync dubbing and chop-socky action pieces. Since precious few Western viewers keep abreast of current trends in Chinese cinema it stands to reason that John Woo’s conventionally retro, faintly Orientalist vision of history is more marketable outside of Asia than Peter Chan’s more contemporary presentation.

The Warlords was a big box office hit in Asia and, Red Cliff, Part 1 similarly broke box office records across Asia. Release of Red Cliff, Part 2 was moved up to capitalize on the success of Part 1 and it premiered in Beijing on Jan. 4. The Warlords cleaned up at both the 2007 Hong Kong Film Awards (eight awards including Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Actor) and the 2008 Golden Horse Awards (Best Picture, Best Director). Red Cliff, however, was shut out of the major awards at this year’s Golden Horse presentation, with only four nominations and no wins. Perhaps as with the Academy Awards and the last installment of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, Red Cliff, Part 2 will fare better at awards time than its predecessor. For now it remains to be seen whether it will duplicate the The Warlords’ hometown awards success.

Entry filed under: andy lau tak-wah, hong kong, jet li, john woo, movies, takeshi kaneshiro, tony leung chiu-wai, Uncategorized. Tags: , , , , , , , , , .

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7 Comments Add your own

  • […] Leung and Kaneshiro’s first movie together was Wong’s Chungking Express (1994), though they shared only a few seconds of screen time. I was reminded of this in an essay by Amy Taubin (reproduced in the Criterion release of the DVD), who writes that Leung — who she describes as having “the most soulful set of peepers in contemporary cinema” — walks straight into the camera when we first see him in the Wong film. Leung doesn’t appear until an hour into Red Cliff, but Woo is completely aware of Leung’s star power; as in Chungking Express, we’re coyly introduced to Leung via a closeup of his eyes. (It was at that point, I think, that sharp intakes of breath were suddenly heard from Barb and Valerie.) […]

  • […] in a repeat of the Golden Horse Awards last year, John Woo’s lavish epic Red Cliff was shut out of the major acting and directing awards (including Tony Leung Chi-Wai failure to win […]

  • 3. thomas turbert  |  January 24, 2010 at 5:48 pm

    are they coming out with any more dvd’
    red cliff movies???

    • 4. valeriesoe  |  January 24, 2010 at 7:50 pm

      I think that’s the end of the Red Cliff movies but John Woo is now directing Michelle Yeoh in a wuxia film alternately called “The Sword and the Martial Arst World,” “Swordsman’s World” and “Rain Of Swords,” so look out for it. Should be awesome—

  • 5. Gina  |  August 21, 2010 at 8:36 am

    Great post.

    I came across your blog through a “Takeshi Kaneshiro” google search. Good to know that someone else in the bay area has even heard of him! I started with The Warlords and am slowly working my way through his filmography.

    • 6. valeriesoe  |  August 27, 2010 at 6:56 am

      Have a great time! He made a series of awesome movies back in the 90s starting with Chungking Express & Fallen Angels, when he was incredibly young and cute. Now he’s a little bit older and incredibly handsome, of course : )

  • 7. mei  |  March 12, 2011 at 7:42 am

    It’s not the dirt! Clothing and hairstyles of the Manchurian Qing Dynasty is radically different and far less visually appealing from previous Han Chinese dynasties..
    There’s nothing aesthetic about Manchu imposed half-shaved heads and pigtails and their boxy garments.


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