Imperial China, AD 208: a big dollop of Chinese history coming up. Liu Bei flees with 100,000 peasants from tyrannical Prime Minister Cao Cao’s million man army, to take refuge with Sun Quan in the Southern state of Wu, joining with the rebel forces of Sichuan. As Cao Cao’s huge navy sails up-river to invade Souther China, the rebels unite their forces at the Fortress of Red Cliff in the hope of defeating their common enemy.
No one is making epic cinema like the Chinese. The modest (by Hollywood standards) $80 million budget feels several times that with the spectacle that is thrown up on screen for the better part of three hours. This is a Chinese war movie that outdoes all the others in the scale of action (Mulan and Confucius included).
The surprise is the director: John Woo (Hard Boiled, Mission Impossible 2 and Face-Off), master of action and the ‘bullet ballet’ making his biggest movie yet and with a great sense of romance and humour to relieve the grim violence of the war.
Much of part one is taken up in the building of the rebel alliance; Liu Bei’s brilliant military strategist, Zhuge Liang (Takeshi Kenishiro), reaches out to Sun Quan’s most trusted advisor, the war hero Zhou Yu (Tony Leung), in search of desperate strategies against overwhelming odds. In the build up, the rivalries and relationships of the beseiged are funny and touching and I kept recalling Troy and the (original) Alamo.
The real motive behind Cao Cao’s ambition proves to be not power, but love; to win Zhou Yu’s gorgeous wife, Xiao Qiao (Chiling Lin), the most beautiful woman in all of China, who later risks all in the final battle in a lyrical seduction scene conducting the Tea Ceremony for Cao Cao.
However, Red Cliff’s thrilling, beating heart are the enormous set-piece battles; the rebel ambush of Cao Cao’s vanguard is a huge human chess game of ancient battle formations. Later, the rebels steal Cao Cao’s arrows by an ingenious ruse. The final counter-attack is a colossal gamble on weather, timing and tactics. Of course, being a John Woo film, this is all punctuated by much poetic violence, legions of soldiers slashing, slicing, impaling, and bludgeoning each other. The finale is a fire-storm that pretty well sets a large part of China ablaze.
It is not without problems; originally a five-hour epic in two parts, the edited International release suffers from compression. Some significant historical characters all but disappear in the edit (and enormous whiskers). But the core cast are well defined through to the fiery conclusion and oddly spaghetti-Western showdown. By turns beautiful, bold, funny and violent, Red Cliff is an epic military adventure and the least ‘John Woo’ of all the director’s catalogue. RC
Director: John Woo
Writers: John Woo, Khan Chan, Kuo Zheng, Sheng Heyu
Director: John Woo, 2008, Cat. 15
Running time: International DVD Release, 2 hr. 28 min.
Genre: Drama, Action & Adventure, Historical, International
Cast: Chen Chang, Yong Ho, Jun Hu, Tong Jiang, Takeshi Kaneshiro, Tony Leung Chiu Wai, Chilling Lin, Shido Nakamura, Wei Zhau