When I saw John Woo's Red Cliff (5 screens) a couple of months back, I could barely contain my enthusiasm. I thought it was a true return to form for Woo, who came from an exemplary career in Hong Kong to a rather spotty (if underrated) one in Hollywood. It managed to be a personal project for Woo, full of his own themes and touches, but also a mammoth epic of the kind that usually goes on to stun the world and win a dozen Oscars; it was the best such epic since Braveheart or Gladiator, but even better than those films. It was more modest and emotional, more poetic and intimate, faster and cleaner in its action sequences, but no less spectacular. It was apparently the most expensive movie ever produced in China, and also its biggest hit. I had visions of John Woo meeting Oscar for the first time.
But to date, in the US, it has earned a paltry $600,000, which is roughly one thousand times less than Avatar. It placed on a tiny handful of critics' ten best lists, and has barely made a ripple since. I'm sure people did not stay away because of the subtitles; after all, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon was a huge hit, and Red Cliff is every bit as good, every bit as crowd-pleasing. Perhaps the advertising and release pattern were a mistake. Perhaps it never opened wide enough when it still had some momentum. But I think the main problem was the plan of releasing a "U.S. cut," which ran 148 minutes, whereas the original cut ran 280 minutes. The length did not stop it from becoming a huge hit in China, but somehow, somebody decided that Americans could not take length and subtitles.