Principal Cast : Tony Leung, Takeshi Kaneshiro, Lin Chi-ling, Zhang Fengyi, Chang Chen, Zhao Wei, Hu Jun, You Yong, Shido Nakamura, Lin Chi-ling, Hou Yong, Tong Dawei, Batdorj-in Baasanjab, Zang Jinsheng, Song Jia, Zhang Shan, Wang Hui, Xia Gang, Shi Xiaohong, Xu Fengnian, Guo Chao, hi Xiaoguang, Ciu Yugui, Jiang Tong, Ma Jing, Yizhen.
Synopsis: In China, 208AD, two warlords combine their forces against the oncoming might of the Imperial army, led by Cao Cao, who is intent in wiping them out and gaining control of the South Lands. The two opposing armies stage a battle on the banks of the Yangtze River, a battle which will go on to define a changing of the guard in Chinese history.
Note: The film Red Cliff is also available in various markets in an abridged, single-film edition. This review reflects the authors views on the original, two-film story, which is currently available on BluRay from a variety of retailers. Part 1 of Red Cliff was released theatrically in 2008, while Part 2 came forth in 2009. The author refers to “the film” to mean both part 1 and 2 combined – they were watched consecutively over the course of a day, and they run concurrently as a single, whole filmed project.
Before I get into the meat of this review, I should point out that I’m highly doubtful of my ability to adequately critique this movie. As a Westerner, I often struggle to watch alternative culture films with enough knowledge to really “get” them the way I perhaps should. Red Cliff is a historical document that portrays a pivotal moment in Chinese history, and accuracy aside, I cannot claim to have a wealth of knowledge about this incident save what I’ve managed to glean from Google. Historians may deride this film from the perspective of dramatic license, and I can see why they may take issue with what John Woo has achieved with this movie – it does have a fair degree of obvious poetic décolletage about its bulk, but the central ideals the film presents are resolute and historically accurate. Without a background in Chinese history, I’m doubtful that I can critique the film’s accuracy nor would I even attempt to; so I approached this film simply as an attempt to bring to the big screen one of the worlds most important conflicts, because the outcome of it changed the course of one of the greatest, most powerful nations on Earth. As with China itself, Red Cliff is an epic, epic undertaking – the film clocks in with barely change out of five hours! – to both watch and appreciate. It behoves me to implore any unwary viewer that the film is both enormous of scope, and intimate with emotion, and taxing on those who might be time-poor. It requires a relaxation of Western understanding, an appreciation of the codes and beliefs of the Chinese historical past, and at least two soft pillows with which to sit on so the full magnificence of Woo’s achievement might be adequately appreciated.
The story of the battle of Red Cliff is involved and long, although the film does a terrific job of imparting all the relevant information to those unfamiliar with it. In the winter of 208/209 AD, two armies camped on either side of the Yangtze River in China, intent on defeating the other. One one side, the vast army of the Chancellor Cao Cao (Zhang Fengyi) seeking to eradicate the factional warlords Sun Quan (Chang Chen) and Lui Bei (You Yung), both of whom have formed an alliance in order to withstand this assault. They see Cao Cao as the puppeteer of current Emperor Han (Wang Ning), whose attempts to reunite all of China under his banner has been problematic. Sun Quan’s viceroy, Zhou You (Tony Leung) is persuaded by Liu Bei’s adviser, Zhuge Liang (Takeshi Kaneshiro), to join forces with Sun Quan’s army to rise up and defeat Cao Cao’s army. And so they set up a base at the titular Red Cliff, in order to prepare for battle. Using a naval fleet, both armies sought to outwit each other – adviser Liang was known as a master strategist, and provided the combined army of Bei and Quan with a sizable advantage militarily. Quan’s sister, Sun Shangxiang (Zhao Wei) manages to infiltrate the opposing army camp, and provides valuable information to the allied army via carrier pigeon. According to legend, the war between Cao Cao and the allied forces was motivated primarily by Cao Cao’s lust for Zhou You’s wife, Xiao Qiao (Lin Chin-ling), whom he met once and was forever haunted by her beauty. At least, that’s one of the hypotheses put forth by John Woo.
Red Cliff was scripted by John Woo, Chan Khan, Kuo Cheng and Sheng Heyu, and encompasses events immediately preceding the battle itself, as well as the battle over the course of the second film. The film takes in a large number of characters, and somehow managed to give each one enough screen time and story grit to really involve the viewer. Woo’s luxury of having two enormous films to tell this story allows him the ability to really dig into much of the motivation, planning and execution of the story than a traditional film might otherwise have. While I noted a distinct lack of a softer side to most of the male characters here – almost all of them save Zhou You and Zhuge Liang have virtually no back-story or development other than military planning – the female roles are probably the more interesting from a story-telling perspective. Both You’s wife, Xiao Qiao, and Quan’s sister, Sun Shangxiang, are probably the most rounded, most developed characters of the entire film, which is bizarre considering how few female roles there are in this monster. The script feels like a living, breathing creature; the film opens with a battle (actually, a slaughter, but it is what it is) before pausing for breath, until it launches into a gargantuan battle sequence that fills up the last third of Part 1, before pausing for breath again. Part 2 follows a similar path – Red Cliff takes its time, but where one might normally say it “gets a bit boring in the middle”, at no point in the film does the story not progress, lost in Woo’s trademark slo-motion excess for the sheer sake of it. Now that I mention it, I should point out that Woo’s trademark “white dove” motif, found in almost all his film catalogue, takes about 90 minutes into Part 1 to establish itself. Perhaps Woo has finally learned the value of restraint?
Woo’s passion for this project is evident: the films production values are astonishing. The visual effects, the costuming, the photography and the technical prowess of Red Cliff’s widescreen story; there’s not an aspect of this film that could be considered a weakness. Casting is also equally wonderful, with a cavalcade of great Chinese talent in front of the camera to bring this story to life. Headline actors Tony Leung and Takeshi Kaneshiro are commendably watchable – Leung especially, as Zhou You, who is put into the difficult position of having to oversee the allied army attacks. Leung has a gravitas to his performance that manages to overcome any weaknesses in the script vis a vis his character, while Kaneshiro, who as the strategist Liang, must surely have won an award for Best Staring, Best Concerned Look, and Best Third Wheel. Liang, as a character, comes across a little like a Sherlock Holmesian composite, able to predict wind patterns and opposing forces with near miracle-level accuracy. Regardless of the lack of detail in their characters, both Leung and Kaneshiro deliver solid performances, especially in their numerous scenes together, where their friendly chemistry is evident, near palpable. Central villain, Cao Cao, is given plenty of depth by actor Zhang Fengyi, who never resorts to the screeching, demonic Hollywood archetype even in the face of certain defeat. Cao Cao is calculating, self assured and, at times, disarmingly arrogant, and yet Woo’s film never seems to preach on him one way or the other. Too often the Bad Guy is reduced to cliché, which would have ruined this film had Woo gone down that route; Cao Cao is a ruthless enemy, but he’s also portrayed with a sad, almost destined-to-fail humanity by Fengyi, and as a balancing act it’s delicate and rewarding.
Secondary players, such as part-time-spy Sun Shangxiang, played by the gorgeous Zhao Wei, and the enemy battalion commander known as “Pit”, played by Sun Shucai, bring weight to the human toll of war, as the friends torn apart by being on opposite sides of the conflict. Wei in particular brings a sense of loss for those killed by this conflict – indeed, mention is made of the wasted life during wartime at various points in this movie – and it’s her humanity, her familiarity to us, that gives the context of the battle and its cost to Chinese history added weight. You’s wife, played by Lin Chin-ling, feels in Part 1 like it goes nowhere, although as a touchstone for You to fight to save their livelihood it works well; it isn’t until Part 2 that Lin Chin-ling gets to stretch herself as an actress, offering herself as a hostage if it will save lives. The commanders of the armies led by You feel a little like the scriptwriters went to the store and purchased characters off the shelf. You could categorize them as “the loud one”, “the quiet one” and so on – if there’s a fault to Red Cliff it is that the secondary characters seem somehow less important, when they should be as important. Ostensibly, the films intimate character focus is in direct opposition to the potentially overwhelming battle sequences, although Woo does really well to keep them moving together fluidly.
Technically, the film excels. Woo’s command of the camera, of the enormous set-pieces of armies colliding in battle, with thousands of extras on the set (considering the scale of the film, most of it was done for real, apparently) and all the stunts involved to bring the various conflicts to life, is first rate. The gargantuan action pieces, in the first film consisting of a massive land battle between the outnumbered allied forces and Cao Cao’s arrogant horse brigade, and the second film having the battle of Red Cliff itself, are stunningly mounted. Using both real sets, and a certain amount of judicious digital trickery in the computer, Woo seems intent on redefining the term “epic” to describe film-making. One can only wonder what the great David Lean might make of Red Cliff from a purely narrative standpoint had he been alive to witness it? Surely he might have rubbed his hands together with glee at its potential. I realize that to many, I’m committing sacrilege linking David Lean with John Woo, but the fact is, Red Cliff is Woo’s Lawrence Of Arabia, there’s no doubt about it. The stakes are enormous for the characters, not only personally, but on a grand scale of China’s own identity; it’s no surprise that the Red Cliff story, which is based on historical fact, is still taught in Chinese schools. The end of the Han Dynasty, and the beginning of the near-mythical Three Kingdoms, is as pivotal as it gets for China, so it’s little wonder that Woo was given this monolithic, epochal task to undertake. Woo is, if nothing else, a broad-strokes storyteller, and that’s what Red Cliff needed.
First thing to note about the look and feel of the film is its stunning use of color. Red Cliff is a riot of hues, pastels and occasional darkness – the costuming and set design are all sublimely detailed, and the cinematography – by Academy Award nominated DP Lü Yue – is stunning. Every crinkle of material, every spurt of crimson blood, every speck of sodden earth and exploding building, is all lit and photographed with precision and, dare I say it, majesty in keeping with the themes of the film. The allied forces typically use primary colour motifs, sporting whites, greens and blues throughout their uniforms, while the army of Cao Cao is predominantly a black-and-red hybrid. Now, normally in these large scale battle films I tend to lose track of exactly who’s who, but here I am pleased to say I had no such difficulty. The night-time sequences, including the massive ship-to-shore attack by the allied naval fleet, are never once indiscernible amongst the inky black of night. The photography is well rendered and allows the action to be followed with precision and a hasty eye. Thankfully, Woo and Yue avoided using the Hollywood “shaky cam” technique in almost every frame – those of you who despise that kind of filming style will be glad to hear this – and the camerawork is stable, fluid and at times just breath-taking. Woo wrote the book on how to film modern action, and he utilizes every trick he has in his arsenal to pull this off.
The film’s pacing, editorially, is deftly meandering when required, and expertly purposeful during the more intense sequences of action. Woo, who oversaw no less than four editors on both parts of the film, must have had a change of heart between working on Part 1 and 2, because Part 2 uses a sweet-looking “cutting the cloth” transition effect which was absent in Part 1. Transitions in Part 1 are simple cuts or gradual fades. Slower moments in the film never feel bloated, though, which is testament to the editing work here. Conversations between characters flows easily, often in a single take with a two-shot, and the narrative is kept bubbling by a refusal to pause for things like establishing shots and framing shots – at least, not in any obvious way. The film’s most obvious work has been done on the action sequences, however, and these must have been an absolute pain to pull off. The amount of stunt work, effects work and filmed material coming into the cutting room would have been so daunting, I’m surprised the film comes together as well as it does! Every punch, slice and dice, every spear, sword and explosion, every ripple of a ship’s sail, every scream and cry of a dying solder: the entire film is a perfect blend of editing, sound design and music. The score, composed by Taro Iwasharo, consists of both orchestral and traditional Chinese instrumentation. It is often a lilting, lyrical juxtaposition between man and war, and often a pounding, percussive blast of mood and energy.
I can honestly say that Red Cliff never feels like a five hour film. Its scope, and the sheer number of characters the film has to juggle, as a real story could have made things sag under the weight of too much exposition, but Woo’s canny enough to keep the pacing relatively – I reiterate, relatively – speedy and free of anything that doesn’t propel the narrative. Less discerning viewers might find fault with the large amount of time characters spend explaining what’s about to happen, or whether or not to even proceed, but this added tension within the frame of the story works for it, in my opinion. I doubt this film will work for everybody – hey, I was expecting it not to work for me, so imagine my surprise when I found myself following the story without wanting it to stop! – but for lovers of great cinema, cinema used to tell a great story, then you shouldn’t go past Red Cliff. Woo returns to top form as a director here, and that should be something to celebrate. Red Cliff is dynamic, gargantuan storytelling of the first order, and you really should do yourself a favour and check it out when you’ve a day to spare watching it.