'Red Cliff' has rock-solid opening in Asia

Attendance is high for John Woo's $80 mil war epic

"Red Cliff" director John Woo got a local hero's welcome as his $80 million war epic opened with a bang across Asia.

On Thursday, 60 Hong Kong cinemas earned HK$2 million ($257,000) from Woo's first made-in-China film since 1992's "Hard Boiled."

The strong opening is a good sign for a film that dealt with a lengthy and troubled shoot, including the death of a stunt man and the hospitalization of producer Terence Chang for stress.

Touted as the most expensive Chinese-language movie ever made, "Red Cliff" is the first installment of a nearly four-hour, two-part film with an international cast that includes Hong Kong actor Tony Leung Chiu-wai ("Lust, Caution") and Taiwanese-Japanese actor Takeshi Kaneshiro ("The Warlords").

Shot in Mandarin, the film will need overseas ticket sales to satisfy a cast of international investors that includes Beijing's state-run China Film Group, Tokyo's Avex Group, Taipei's CMC Entertainment, Seoul's Showbox/Mediaplex, a few European distributors and Standard Chartered bank of the U.K.

Based on a historical sea battle in 208 A.D., "Red Cliff" used more than 1,000 extras and lots of special effects. The second part will be released in Asia in December, when Western audiences will be shown a single-part, condensed version. The film has yet to link with a U.S. distributor.

Thus far, good word-of-mouth and positive reviews appear to be paying off. "Red Cliff's" Hong Kong distributor, Emperor Motion Pictures, said that ticket sales show it trumping Will Smith starrer "Hancock," which earned HK$970,000 ($124,000) in 38 cinemas, bringing its first week's total to HK$15 million ($1.93 million).

Initial boxoffice reports from China, Japan and Taiwan were not available, but local reports said attendance was high. In South Korea, "Red Cliff" opened strong, selling 131,000 tickets Thursday on 437 screens, about double the number of screens enjoyed by Zhang Yimou's "Hero" in 2002. "Hero" and director Ang Lee's "House of Flying Daggers" (2000) each sold about 60,000 tickets in their opening days in Korea.

Korean exhibitors said they expect "Red Cliff" to sell about 900,000 tickets by Sunday night. Showbox, which marketed the film with an English-language trailer, giving it the appearance of a Hollywood blockbuster, is predicting 3 million tickets (about $19 million) by the end of the film's run, making it the biggest Chinese-language film ever released in Korea.

To help reach that goal, Woo toured Korea with the cast and agreed to cut nine minutes to tighten the Chinese tale for Korean viewers.

Karen Chu reported from Hong Kong; Mark Russell reported from Seoul.