Romance of the Three Kingdoms now in Hollywood adaptation Red CLiff
At the age of 10, John Woo liked staying up late at night drawing with a brush pen the characters from the literary classic "Romance of the Three Kingdoms" on a piece of glass.
Covering himself with a blanket to make the space dark like a cinema, he then used a flashlight to project the characters onto the wall and he would make the shadows move like a puppet play.
Now, half a century later, the Hollywood-based Hong Kong director has made his childhood dream come true by putting the novel onto the silver screen in "Red Cliff." He hopes it will be a global blockbuster - it's lavish, magnificent and tells a well-known story. And Woo knows Western audiences' tastes.
The two-episode historical drama and war epic is the most anticipated domestic film this year.
Part I opens across Asia starting July 10. Part II is to be released in December.
With a budget of more than US$70 million, the movie is the costliest Chinese film ever made. Its A-list cast includes Tony Leung, Takeshi Kaneshiro and Hu Jun.
"It is my longtime dream to make a film based on the stories of the famous Three Kingdoms Period," Woo says.
The movie centers on the epic Battle of Red Cliff (Chi Bi Zhi Zhan) in today's Hubei Province in which 2,000 ships burned in a river battle. The tale is replete with ancient Chinese politics, philosophy and war strategies.
The biggest scenes involved 2,000 actors and crew. Around 1,300 special effects are used.
The 62-year-old Woo, who looks like your affable neighbor, is a genius of cinema. He first became known for his Hong Kong action classics, featuring slow motion action, artistic gunplay and themes of brotherhood in films such as "A Better Tomorrow," and "The Killer."
Woo's Hollywood sojourn began in 1993, when he took his directorial style to box-office hits like "Face/Off," "Mission: Impossible II" and "Paycheck."
"I have been making movies in Hollywood for about 16 years," Woo says. "I know Western audiences' taste, and I know the formula and expertise for a commercial blockbuster. I want to prove that in China, we also have the ability, talent and endurance to make a Hollywood-style blockbuster."
Woo's other mission is to improve Western cinemagoers' understanding of Chinese culture - it's more than just kung fu.
"I truly wanted to capture the courage and wisdom of the Chinese people and their culture," Woo says. "The characters in the movie are true to life. I try to make them believable and really touching."
"Red Cliff" tells of the delicate relationship between Zhou Yu (played by Leung) and Zhuge Liang (played by Kaneshiro), two legendary and rival war strategists. They form an unlikely alliance in 208 AD to resist an attack by the Han emperor.
"The two talents admire, respect but take precautions against each other," says Cannes winner Leung. "Once again, director Woo vividly depicts brotherhood from various angles. It's his signature."
Supermodel Lin Chi-ling stars opposite Leung, playing the famous beauty Xiao Qiao, Zhou's wife. To prepare for the part, she took lessons in the tea art and Chinese calligraphy.
Actor Hu Jun, who plays the brave general Zhao Yun, says that 95 percent of his performance is in fight scenes. "Woo has good control of the ambience, rhythm and visual elements of storytelling on film," Hu says. "I have learned a lot from him."
Outside of Asia, "Red Cliff" will be released in a single, condensed film in December. Woo expects big global box office.
The director's next project is another Chinese film, "1949," this time a romance -- unusual for him -- set against World War II and the Chinese civil war.
Shooting is expected to begin in Shanghai early next year.
"You'll have many chances to find me working here," he says.