China’s war of northern aggression
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