Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Red Cliff

Yesterday afternoon we went to see John Woo's Red Cliff. It was a pretty straightforward historical epic, telling the story of  a group of Chinese warlords who unite against Cao Cao, a prime minister who has made himself into a warlord and is on the verge of establishing himself as the absolute ruler in China. It's beautifully filmed, well-acted, and interesting to watch throughout. I could have done without the last two minute scene, which felt sentimental and false and out of sync with the rest of the movie in much the same way as the very last scene in the Lord of the Rings movie trilogy, but overall I thought it was very well put together.

What really gave me goose bumps, however, was when, at the end of the movie, as the music was playing and the credits were rolling over a black screen, the words to a poem appeared, a couple of lines at a time, at the bottom of the screen. On Saturday I had written a post in which I made reference to Su Tung P'o, the 11th Century Chinese poet who, for karmic reasons still in the process of manifesting themselves, has suddenly has made his appearance in my life, via references in the poems of W.S. Merwin and Jim Harrison. And I had spent some time on Sunday and Monday tracking down what materials were available to me in on the net and in our school library. And the very first thing I had run across, on Poemhunter.com, was the very same poem that I was now seeing scrolling in front of me at the end of this movie:

Battle of Red Cliff

The Yangtze flows east
Washing away
A thousand ages of great men
West of the ramparts —
People say —
Are the fabled Red Cliffs of young Chou of the Three Kingdoms
Rebellious rocks pierce the sky
Frightening waves rip the bank
The backwash churns vast snowy swells —
River and mountains like a painting
how many heroes passed them, once ...

Think back to those years, Chou Yu —
Just married to the younger Chiao —
Brave, brilliant
With plumed fan, silk kerchief
Laughed and talked
While masts and oars vanished to flying ash and smoke!
I roam through ancient realms
Absurdly moved
Turn gray too soon —
A man's life passes like a dream —
Pour out a cup then, to the river, and the moon

So that was a weird moment. Funny how sometimes there are these unanticipated convergences, one thing connecting with another. Su Tung P'o wrote his thoughts down nine hundred years ago, and here we are today, still turning them over in our minds, noticing the same things, asking the same questions. Absurdly moving. I wonder who of our contemporaries the denizens of the world will be reading in the year 2909, and which stories of ours will have lasted long enough to inspire their moviemakers. (Acknowledging, of course, the extreme unlikelihood that there will be, by 2099, anyone around to do the reading or make the movies, or that even if there are such people, the these technologies will any longer exist, or will, like the masts and oars of Cao Cao's armada, be vanished to flying ash and smoke.)

A toast then, to the river, the moon... and to my new and ghostly friend, Su Tung P'o.

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