Takeshi then and now: The Warlords, Red Cliff and the aesthetics of dirt
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.
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, 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.
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: andy lau, hong kong films, jet li, john woo, movies, part 2, peter chan, red cliff, takeshi kaneshiro, the warlords.