It is a scorching summer day of around 36C at a tank base three hours outside Beijing. More than 1,000 actors and extras wearing ancient armour are in the midst of battle. As flags fly and war drums pound, Hong Kong star Tony Leung Chiu-wai dashes among the crowds, waving his swords. Meanwhile John Woo sits in a tent, contemplating four monitors. He frowns, calls "Cut!", and whispers to his assistant director, "Wrong! Wrong!" The AD calls out on a loudspeaker: "The man standing on the right to Tony Leung took the wrong position."

Red Cliff (Chi Bi) is the Hong Kong director's first film in Asia since Hard Boiled in 1992. Billed as the most expensive Chinese movie ever made, it is Woo's most logistically ambitious yet. A $75m war epic about a decisive battle in a divided China 1,799 years ago, Woo is shooting two two-hour films back-to-back to be released in Asia in July and December 2008 (a two-and-a-half-hour edit will be released in the rest of the world from December 2008).

With a crew of 700 and some of the region's top stars - including Leung, Japan's Takeshi Kaneshiro, Taiwan's Chang Chen and Lin Chiling, and China's Zhao Wei and Hu Jun - the four-month shoot started in April, principally at four locations in China's Hebei province. The night before Screen visited the set, Woo worked until 3am on a night shoot, recreating a famous fireship battle that involved burning 20 prop battleships at a cost of around $1m. After just a few hours sleep, Woo moved a few kilometres away to the tank base to continue shooting the film's inland battle scene.

The scale of the fight is immense, and will get larger still. The film is transferring to the US for post, where digital effects firm The Orphanage will multiply the 1,000 troops into hundreds of thousands. Nevertheless, Woo's producer Terence Chang says the film is based in reality and as much about the complicated tension between the characters. "Our heroes don't do flying kung-fu in the film," he says. "The story is a realistic one, without any superficial elements."

Epic production process

Red Cliff is a high-profile homecoming for Woo, and as such has benefited from extensive local support (the Chinese government has provided hundreds of soldiers, for example). But the making of the film has been a long and winding road. Prep started on the film - then budgeted at $50m - three years ago, with Woo and Chang's Lion Rock Productions initially setting it up with Taiwan's CMC Entertainment, Japanese production company Rentrack and the Beijing-based Asian Union Film & Media.

Having acted as the Chinese co-producer for two years, Asian Union dropped out last August citing a lack of funds: the state-owned China Film Group Corporation stepped in to become the Chinese co-producer and the distributor of the film in mainland China. In 2006, Rentrack dropped out.

With CMC remaining on board as the Taiwanese distributor, Red Cliff's backing was finalised early this year: Japanese record label, talent management and film production company Avex Group and Korean producer and distributor Showbox came on board, in return for Japanese and Korean rights respectively. The budget increased from the original $50m to $75m. Summit Entertainment is handling international sales and began selling at Berlin this year, with the Western version now sold to France, UK, Australia and some Latin America territories. For the Asian version, besides the territories covered by Red Cliff's backers, it has also been sold to Hong Kong (Mei Ah Entertainment), Singapore, Thailand and Malaysia.

Casting has been an epic struggle too. In April, just three days after shooting began, Chow Yun-fat resigned from the production due to contract disputes and Woo had to find a replacement. Two days later, after long talks, Tony Leung Chiu-wai agreed to return to the project. Leung had earlier resigned as the star because he felt there was not enough time to prepare the Mandarin lines which is not his native tongue. "(When Chow left) I was feeling terrible," Woo says. "I am so grateful for Tony Leung's support. He gave me the timely phone call when I needed his help."

What's more, scheduling proved problematic as Chinese actors commonly work on several films at once. The production team scouted around 14 Chinese provinces seeking the perfect locations. Originally Woo wanted to shoot the film along the Yangtze River basin and the Red Cliff, where the battles originally took place. But the cost of transporting the large crew and the difficulty of moving 500 horses and 1,000 soldiers meant the team had to give up the southern locations and shoot mostly in Yi County and Zhuozhou of Hebei Province near Beijing.

The production also initially began using the Beijing Film Studio, a China Film Group property. But after two months of shooting, the crew had to dismantle the set and move to the city's CCTV studios as Chen Kaige was using Beijing Film Studio for the biopic Mei Lanfang.

For Woo, working back in China after years in Hollywood has taken some readjustment. "We had to start from zero in many aspects," Woo admits. "But this production is an opportunity for our Chinese colleagues to try new techniques, to collaborate on combat scenes with stunts and special effects, and to handle big production teams with international professionals. It's a new challenge and learning opportunity for young staff."

Red Cliff (Chi Bi)
Director: John Woo
Producers: Terence Chang, John Woo
Executive producers: Han Sanping, Wu Kebo
Script: John Woo, Cheng Guo, Khan Chan, Sheng Heyu
Director of photography: Lu Yue
Editor: Angie Lam
Production design: Tim Yip
Music: Taro Iwashiro
Cast: Tony Leung Chiu-wai, Takeshi Kaneshiro, Zhang Fengyi, Chang Chen, Lin Chiling, Zhao Wei, Hu Jun
Backers: Lion Rock Productions, China Film Group Corporation, Avex Entertainment, Chengtian Entertainment, CMC Entertainment, Showbox Entertainment
Int'l sales: Summit Entertainment
Distributors: Showbox Entertainment (Korea), Avex Entertainment (Japan), China Film Group Corporation (China), Mei Ah Entertainment (Hong Kong), CMC Entertainment (Taiwan)

John Woo was unwilling to cut back on the sprawling Red Cliff story. The result is two separate two-hour films. Sen-lun Yu reports.
Making a film about the Three Kingdom period of China has been an ambition of John Woo's for 18 years. According to producer Terence Chang, Woo talked in 1989 about making the Red Cliff story, but stopped because of limited resources at that time.
"I like that time period," Woo says. "It was a time when all the talents and heroes emerged, in each of the divided kingdoms. And the stories of the Three Kingdoms have such vivid descriptions of the rivalry and friendships of these heroes. It was exhilarating just reading them."
Woo loved the stories so much that he was unwilling to make cuts when he realised the film might be four hours long. "(Woo) told me, 'You're the producer. You figure out what to do,'" says Chang, who persuaded his investors to split the four hours into two films for Asian territories, countries that are more familiar with the Three Kingdoms stories. "We try to be faithful to the original stories," Woo says.
With 10 lead characters and complicated inter-relationships, will it be difficult for the story to cross over to the international audience' "Red Cliff is a movie about humanity, about how small countries fight against the powerful," says Woo. "It's about courage, perseverance and solidarity, telling people to have faith and be optimistic. All these points are universal without any cultural barrier," he says. "Besides, the Spartans, Ben Hur and Troy are all historical stories of the West, but they are well-accepted by the international audience. We have to have faith in Chinese stories."