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John Woo on U.S. Military Adventurism

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

First thing I thought after catching John Woo's new mega-period epic, Red Cliff, this weekend was, I wonder why I haven't read any clever blog reviews discussing the film's obvious subtext on America's recent military adventurism yet. A few google searches later and I learned that the film not only hasn't yet been released Stateside, it's got no U.S. distributor. That, folks, is crazy. Either someone in Hollywood is really stupid, or someone in China is really greedy. (With regard to this movie, I mean.)

To put it very simply, this is a great martial arts war flick, with a refreshingly light touch on distracting digital effects(mainly to portray the massive naval flotilla transporting the Hanarmy), and just the right mix ofold-school kung-fu style and high-tech camera work in the hand-to-hand combat scenes, with none of thesilly skywalking special effects that leave serious martial arts fans rolling their eyes.

The story centers around the evil prime minister Cao Cao, who intimidates the young and weak Han emperor into authorizing a war with the two rebellious southern kingdoms. Relying on overwhelming force and technological superiority, Cao Cao deploys his war-weary and overstretched army into the south.

There he is met by the much smaller armies of the kingdoms of Shu and Wu, who use archaic tactics and asymmetric strategies, the strength of their alliance and the inspiration that comes of defending their homelands to ultimately . . . Well, I don't want to give away the ending.

There are references to population-centric warfare (the decision of the Shu leader to redeploy his troops and abandon the battlefield in order to defend fleeing civilians), as well as biological warfare (the use by Cao Cao of typhoid-infected corpses as weapons).

But if the Han army is clearly a stand-in for the kind of American imperial hubris that led to Shock and Awe, it's also a stand-in for imperial hubris in general. More interesting still, the Shu and Wu army are not stand-ins for America's enemies, at least none that I recognize, but rather for a more traditional image of American foreign policy, one based on sincere alliances and a just cause, and committed to the protection of innocent civilians.

In other words, if Woo paid any attention to any of this, and it's doubtful he did, it was not to confront the America of Shock and Awe with the image of its adversaries, so much as with the image of itself, before and after the urge to empire set in.

Oh, and I guess that makes four China posts today.