John Woo's 'Red Cliff' is a Must-See Chinese War Epic

City Pulse | November 16, 2009
John Woo delivers on Red Cliff's reputation as the most expensive Chinese-language film ever made. Red Cliff is a mesmerizing war epic that concentrates on ancient techniques of military strategy as played out on a grand stage. Set in 208 AD, the 131-minute film hits the ground running as general Cao Cao (Zhang Fengyi) asserts his power over the Han Emperor Xian (Wang Ning), leading his troops south to conquer regional warlords, the benevolent Liu Bei (You Yong) and Sun Quan (Chang Chen). But Liu Bei has a secret weapon: a skilled advisor Zhuge Liang (Takeshi Kaneshiro), whose brilliant counsel makes for some dramatic plot twists. The ensemble of actors including Vicki Zhao and Tony Leung Chiu-wai give stellar performances in a lush piece of mythic history. The balance of natural beauty, complex characters, wartime drama, and epic scale, makes Red Cliff a must-see movie. And you'll have something to look forward to afterward: the second half of the two-part series (The Battle of Red Cliff) comes out in January.

Compared to typical big spectacle Hollywood blockbusters like 2012, Red Cliff contrasts its visually stunning epic-scale compositions with a far greater sense of historic purpose. Woo's close attention to giving every weapon and prop a sense of handcrafted design gives his actors a strong sense of time and place. There are plenty of impressive big battle scenes on land and in the water. Every flinching muscle of horse and human comes across with an understanding of the stratagem behind each massive assault.

Cao Cao's million troops easily topple Liu Bei's Xu Kingdom and cause its citizens to run off with Liu Bei's army. In the desperate situation Liu Bei sends representative Zhuge Liang to form an alliance with the wealthy Kingdom of East Wu. In order for his request to be considered by East Wu leader Sun Quan (Chang Chen), Zhuge Liang must impress the Viceroy Zhou Yu (Tony Leung) with his musical skills in a duet that speaks volumes for Woo's nuanced balancing act of tradition, wisdom, and far reaching objectives.

The story digs in with the allies encampment on the south bank of the Yangtze River in a steep area called Red Cliff. Sun Quan's fearless sister Sun Shangxiang (Zhao Wei) plays by her own rules when she disguises herself as one of Cao Cao's soldiers and goes behind enemy lines to spy on Cao's plans. The allies effect a brilliant stroke of strategy when they purposely attract nearly 100,000 flaming arrows from Cao Cao's battleships in order to gain ammunition. Later in the story, a knowledge of weather patterns proves dramatically effective for the allies.

The script was co-written by Woo with three other writers (Khan Chan, Kuo Cheng, and Sheng Heyu), and is based on the classic Chinese novel Romance of the Three Kingdoms by Luo Guanzhong. The fictionalized story is a popular touchstone all over Asia as evidenced by its wide appearance in Asian video games and comic books. The West has nothing like Red Cliff to draw upon for films. So while America teens swoon over the next Twilight installment or the next 3-D Avatar-inspired bit of eye-candy, you can go see a big spectacle movie with some meat on its bones.

(Magnet) Rated R. 148 mins. (A-)
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