John Woo’s return to China has been heavily hyped. For years, fans have been begging him to walk away from unrepentant rubbish that he was making in Hollywood. And eventually, he did. After the release of Paycheck, John Woo has not shot another feature film in the past five years. Thank God, many would say. Well, John did return to China but the project he picked up there was not quite what was expected. Rather than return to his Hong Kong roots of gangsters and guns, Woo set about making an historical epic. And my eyes just about rolled out my mouth when I first heard that.

My fear was that the success of films like Crouching Tiger and so on would lead to some Wu Xia indulgence. Zhang Yimou, the celebrated dramatist, certainly had no problem leaping into wu xia productions with Hero, House of Flying Daggers and Curse of the Golden Flower. Was John Woo going to take a fifth hand pass at this international revival now? After Andrew Lau had his Storm Riders in the 90s, after other celebrated directors like Ang Lee, Wong Kar Wai, Zhang Yimou, Tsui Hark and Chen Kaige, was John Woo really going to throw his hat into the ring so much after the fact?

Well luckily that doesn’t seem to be the case, based on the new extended footage of his new film, Red Cliff. The first film of this two-part, hugely expensive Chinese production will open in China a week from today and a load of new footage as been released just in time for the movie’s opening just before the Beijing Olympics (a funny coincidence). Interestingly the widely reported incident of the stunt man killed on set happened only last month, the cause of some very late third unit work presumably thought needed to buff up the final battle, glimpsed in these clips.

The film itself is based on the Chinese historical period of the Three Kingdoms, and not the popular novel Romance of the Three Kingdoms which took history as the stepping stone, and was then repeated in numerous other books, comics and games. As such Red Cliff is rather a fresh telling, in that it cuts out the bias and contrived heroes settled upon by the author of the Romance so many ancient years ago. My ignorance of this period (mostly limited to other films and Dynasty Warriors) is part of the reason I’m keen on this film.

In it, Tony Leung Chiu Wai plays Zhou Yu, a military strategist for the young warlord heir Sun Quan, played by Chang Chen. The ageless Taiwan/Japanese actor Takeshi Kaneshiro (what is this guy’s secret?) plays Zhuge Liang, the other most prominent military strategist of his era. Though I knew he would be appearing in this film, I was surprised to see Japanese actor Shido Nakamura appear so often in the promotional material, though I don’t know much about his part in the story of Red Cliff, I know he plays a character called Gan Xing and is seen in the clips experimenting with fire, probably leading to one of Zhou Yu’s famous moments.

When I wrote my post about Tadanobu Asano a few weeks ago, I actually mentioned Shido Nakamura, an actor I’m fond of. I also mentioned Tony Leung Chiu Wai, who I believe, with Asano, is one of the most talented actors working today. Many people were disappointed when Chow Yun Fat left this production to be replaced with Tony Leung. I have a soft spot for Chow Yun Fat that comes from a lifetime of watching his pictures, but him being replaced with Tony did not hit me hard. The replacement doesn’t just change the actor, it changes the mood of the whole picture. I believe that with Chow Yun Fat, we would have seen a much different picture, the relationship with Takeshi Kaneshiro would have been different at least, it could not have played out the same way it will against his Chungking Express co-star Leung.

Though I’m primarily interested in this film for the actors involved, another part of me is concerned for John Woo. I know he doesn’t need my sympathy, but as a long-time fan, I’d like to see him back in successful pictures. John Woo did need to come back to China. Unfortunately, Woo is a great example of a director who was battered by Hollywood, either through his own judgement or the urging of producers. I assumed his inevitable return to China would play it safe. Maybe that remake of Le Cercle Rouge he often talked about before Johnnie To seemed to take it over. But instead, he went bigger than before, more than anything he’s done before. And it’s been about 30 years since he’s done any kind of Chinese historical picture, never mind those he started with were not particularly successful.

So for most films these days, the long trailer is a kind of trick. It shows a good opening sequence (or it tries to) in order to get a reluctant audience to change their mind by seeing so much of the picture. But for Red Cliff, it’s a kind of reassurance. The 9 minute promo is not the first 9 minutes of the film, it’s an extended trailer from an epic production. The first trailer made the film look like a picture about warriors, here the 9 minutes betray it as a movie about strategists. Not that it’s not action packed, it is, to an incredible extent. I love the series of sequences that sow new tactics and new weapons being used in various battles. There’s even a filming of what looks like an ancient Chinese football match somehow!

The film is coming from an historical source but it is far from dry. Nor does it want to put its foot in with the fantasy wu xia pictures either. Though they may look similar in rapid glances, the more paced 9 minute promo delivers the difference. But that’s not to say the incredible elements have been entirely exorcised. Zhuge Liang is thought by some ot have called down a wind that helped Zhou Yu’s famous fire attack. In the new footage Woo seems to want us to go either way, with a shot of Kaneshiro waving his fan and the wind picking up around him.

Most of all what Red Cliff shows is that despite the drips of CGI shown here and there, there is no substitution for lots of extras and especially for amazing sets. Perhaps these days China is the only country in the world who can make films like this today.

If you’d like to check all the new footage out, you can see the trailer and the 9 minute promo over at Twitch. The official websites of the film in various Asian territories are also running trailers, but I think only the short Japanese one has the stones to say “From the team that brought you MI:2 and Pirates of the Carribean” in a positive manner.