China’s war of north­ern ag­gres­sion

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Red Cliff, Chi­nese bat­tle epic, rated R, in Chi­nese with sub­ti­tles, The Screen, 3.5 chiles

IWhit­tled down to two and a half hours for U.S. audiences from an orig­i­nal pair of prints with a to­tal run­ning time of 280 min­utes, Red Cliff re­sets film­maker JohnWoo’s stan­dards for action-based cin­ema from ho-hum and dumb (he di­rected Mis­sion: Im­pos­si­ble II and the cringe-wor­thy Ben Af­fleck ve­hi­cle Pay­check) to stag­ger­ingly beau­ti­ful in vi­sion, sound, and nar­ra­tive scope.

Woo— whose di­rec­to­rial tal­ent has mostly been squan­dered lately on mid­dling pic­tures that present good stunt work and cin­e­matog­ra­phy paired with in­co­her­ent writ­ing and un­ex­cep­tional act­ing— turns his at­ten­tion away from Hong Kong-pro­duced mar­tial arts/gang­ster flicks and hope­ful Hol­ly­wood block­busters to tackle a piv­otal mo­ment in China’s dy­nas­tic his­tory: the Bat­tle of Chibi, or Red Cliff.

Waged along a south­ern stretch of the Yangtze River at the beginning of the third cen­tury A.D. (dur­ing the last gasps of the East­ern Han Dy­nasty), the bat­tle of Red Cliff pits a power-hun­gry war­rior­chan­cel­lor from the north­ern ter­ri­tory named Cao Cao (Fengyi Zhang) and his large army against

grossly out­num­bered rebel forces from two king­doms to the south, led by Liu Bei (Yong You) and Sun Quan (Chen Chang). With his eyes set on usurp­ing the throne, Cao Cao has con­vinced his in­de­ci­sive em­peror that elim­i­nat­ing the rebel forces in the south is nec­es­sary to main­tain con­trol of his em­pire. Cao Cao in­sists the rebel leaders, com­mand­ing a com­bined force that only mea­sures in the tens of thou­sands, would surely sur­ren­der be­fore dar­ing to fight his one mil­lion sol­diers in an all-out war. Cao Cao se­ri­ously un­der­es­ti­mates the cun­ning and tenac­ity of his op­po­nents.

At the cen­ter of the mea­gerly armed and manned rebels’ de­fenses are Zhuge Liang (Takeshi Kaneshiro), a for­mer farmer and gifted mil­i­tary lo­gi­cian with a keen abil­ity to pre­dict weather pat­terns, and Zhou Yu (Tony Le­ung Chi-Wai), a royal of­fi­cial of Sun Quan who also serves as the supreme mil­i­tary com­man­der of all forces al­lied against Cao Cao. As plans for the epic con­fronta­tion take shape, two women qui­etly as­sume es­sen­tial roles. Sun Quan’s sis­ter Sun Shangx­i­ang (Wei Zhao) in­sists on join­ing the ground bat­tle, in de­fi­ance of her brother. When she is laughed off by Sun Quan and the other men for her war­rior as­pi­ra­tions, she de­vises her own plan to help de­feat Cao Cao by in­fil­trat­ing his mil­i­tary en­camp­ment (with the help of a soar­ing car­rier dove). Sun Quan’s wife, Xiao Qiao (Chiling Lin ) — a vi­sion of beauty skilled in the art of the tea cer­e­mony who had caught Cao Cao’s fancy long be­fore events be­gan to un­fold at Red Cliff— also be­comes a vi­tal piece of the puz­zle. In Woo’s suc­cess­ful ef­fort to ramp up the film’s ro­man­tic and emo­tional ten­sion amid co­pi­ous bat­tle se­quences, Xiao Qiao’s al­le­giances to the em­pire— and to in­di­vid­ual men— re­main un­der sus­pi­cion un­til the film’s cli­max.

Red Cliff, in its undi­luted four-hour­plus form, is the most ex­pen­sive Chi­nese-lan­guage film pro­duced to date (the bud­get re­port­edly ex­ceeded $70 mil­lion), and the money shows even in the film’s con­densed form. Woo and three other screen­writ­ers gath­ered much of their un­der­stand­ing of an­cient Chi­nese mil­i­tary con­flict from two qual­i­fied sources: Chen Shou’s third-cen­tury man­u­script Records of the Three King­doms and Sun Tzu’s time­less mas­ter­piece The Art of War. The small rebel army and Cao Cao’s im­pos­ing forces en­gage in nu­mer­ous bat­tles of wits and large-scale blood­shed, all of which are crafted mag­nif­i­cently in Woo’s lens. Hav­ing al­ready mas­tered the art of close-quar­ters com­bat in his mar­tial-arts pic­tures, Woo now es­tab­lishes him­self as a film­maker who, un­like Trans­form­ers di­rec­tor Michael Bay, can also han­dle the de­pic­tion of epic war­fare (on land and wa­ter) without com­pletely alien­at­ing an au­di­ence from a film’s cen­tral char­ac­ters.

Some of Red Cliff’s more in­ti­mate sub­plots, which ap­pear in the length­ier ver­sion of the film, are edited out of the Amer­i­can ver­sion; small threads of un­sup­ported di­a­logue and the ap­pear­ance of an­cil­lary char­ac­ters for no ap­par­ent rea­son re­veal a few rough spots in fi­nal edit­ing. This— and the fact that Cao Cao, his sol­diers, the rebel leaders, and their armies are nearly in­dis­tin­guish­able from one an­other in their mil­i­tary dress— ad­dle the plot’s pro­gres­sion a bit. But, forWoo, it seems that what mat­ters most is the honor­able pur­pose that brings th­ese char­ac­ters to­gether, rather than the re­la­tion­ships among them.

As an epic war pic­ture, Red Cliff is at its best when Chi­nese mil­i­tary strat­egy is ex­plored in grandiose ways. Im­pres­sive, full-scale sets; panoramic land­scapes; lush cos­tumes; a dark color pal­ette that oc­ca­sion­ally gives way to bursts and splashes of brightly hued blood; fiery, com­put­eran­i­ma­tion-as­sisted naval skir­mishes; and fierce land bat­tles rule the day. Aside from two ten­der mu­si­cal mo­ments be­tween mil­i­tary strate­gists Zhou Yu and Zhuge Liang (they play zheng string in­stru­ments to­gether in a sort of du­el­ing-banjo/Vul­can-mind­meld bond­ing rit­ual), the movie is a rather mas­cu­line af­fair. But the vic­to­ri­ous men at the bat­tle of Red Cliff owe a huge debt of grat­i­tude to a pre­sum­ably peace­ful woman— and a cup of wicked-strong tea.

Coo coo for Sun Tzu’s bluffs: Fengyi Zhang as Cao Cao

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