The curse of Red Cliff - John Woo's £40m problem

John Woo's epic £40m film has been beset by setbacks and tragedy. Clifford Coonan reports from Beijing
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The Independent Culture

A million soldiers are said to have taken part in the Battle of Red Cliff, an epic clash that shaped China for hundreds of years. Never one to shy away from a challenge, the Hong Kong director John Woo has spent £40m making a film of the episode.

But production on Red Cliff, Asia's most expensive movie yet, has been dogged by a series of setbacks, leading some to speculate that it is cursed.

Last week a stuntman was killed and six other crew members injured while shooting a naval battle scene on a set in Beijing. The 23-year-old man died when a fire broke out after a small boat rammed into a larger warship. And that followed delays, weather problems and disputes involving star actors that have threatened to derail the massive project.

Though shooting was officially wrapped up in late December, extra filming has been carried out – forcing further setbacks in the production.

Woo, famed for films such as Broken Arrow, Face/Off and Mission: Impossible II, was in Hong Kong when the accident happened. He rushed back to the set, saying that he would be "responsible to the end".

The film is of particular significance to Woo as it is his first effort in Mandarin after having spent years in the US.

But it is, he admits, also the toughest film he's worked on. "Red Cliff is the movie I've spent the most energy on, prepared for the longest, and is the most tiring," he said.

The film has incredible proportions for Asian cinema – a huge budget and fearsome length. But it is taking a long time to reach cinemas. The weather has proved an adversary – torrential rains washed away part of a set in Hebei in northern China. And then there have been the revolving-door cast changes.

In March last year, Tony Leung Chiu Wai, star of Ang Lee's Lust, Caution, dropped out, saying he felt unable to commit to the six-month shoot, and he was replaced by the Japanese-Taiwanese actor Takeshi Kaneshiro. Soon afterwards, Woo's close friend Chow Yun-Fat also quit. The circumstances of Chow's departure remain mysterious – after all, Woo made Chow a legend through films such as Hard-Boiled.

Then, two days after Chow left, Leung was back, replacing him as lead actor. The cast includes stars of Chinese cinema such as Zhang Fengyi and Chiling Lin.

It had been thought the film could cement China as a film-making power. But in this superstitious country, there are many who warn the production problems mean it will be an expensive flop.

The story is set in the final days of the Han Dynasty, in the year 208. It is now thought the four-hour epic will not hit screens until January.