Review: Red Cliff (2009)

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When Cantonese director John Woo left Hong Kong for Hollywood in the mid-1990s, many people expected him to become one of the giants of world cinema. His American movies turned out to be, at best, problematic and his talent for combining strong human drama and rip-roaring action sequences was never fully realised. His most recent Hollywood film was Paycheck, I doubt in the history of American movies has a more apt title ever been given.

Two years ago, Woo became involved with the Chinese production Red Cliff, a large budget historical epic based on the Chinese classic The Romance of the Three Kingdoms by Luo Guan Zhong. Released throughout Asia in two parts with a total running time of 4 hours and 50 minutes, Red Cliff became China’s highest grossing motion picture ever. Picked up for world distribution by Sony Pictures its debut was in an “International Version” clocking in at 2 hours and 30 minutes. I’ve seen both versions and by far the Mainland cut is the best. But, in my opinion, the much derided international cut is still well worth watching and has suffered unfair criticism from so called “experts” who should really know better. Director Woo supervised the editing of the international version and has put together a superb looking epic which has been well told and well acted. It’s an engrossing 150 minutes of Chinese cinema.

Considering the international cut is aimed at a Western multiplex audience of whom 95% will have no knowledge of the Sino tome it’s based on, Red Cliff will simply be seen as a Chinese blockbuster based on a famous book.

Red Cliff boasts an Asia-wide cast of stars with Hong Kong’s Tony Leung (Lust / Caution) and China’s Zheng Fengyi (The Emperor and the Assassin) in the lead roles. The latter plays Cao Cao, a Northern General, who through defeating the country’s warlords is set to challenge the Emperor for his throne. Before he can do this he must destroy the government and army of Southern China, the Southlands. General Zhou Yu (Tony Leung) is chosen by the Southlands governor to fight Cao Cao. Hopelessly undermanned and running out of time, Zhou Yu stakes the county’s future on a single battle to take place in a gorge on the Yangtze river at Red Cliff.

This film is about strategy: human, military and enviromental. Taiwanese star Takeshi Kaneshiro (Warlords) is Zhuge Liang, the Southern army’s chief strategist and a fascinating character, a non-combatant who frequently holds the future of both armies in his hands. In the Chinese cut much is made of the possibility that under different circumstances Zhou Yu and Zhuge Liang could have been on opposing sides. This receives scant attention in the Western version.

Woo and his writers have created an intelligent and multifaceted picture of a warrior, eschewing much of the Hollywood view of the hero. The film posits all the leading actors are in their own way true warriors. It’s this unusual scripting that makes it difficult to fashion caricatured good and evil characters – but does produce memorable human beings. I especially liked Zhao Wei (Shaolin Soccer) as Sun Shang Xiang, a tomboyish Princess who gives Cao Cao’s army a small but bloody lesson in hubris. She then plays an important role as a soldier / spy in the Northern army.

For such a good cast in Red Cliff, it’s a shame that Zhou Yu’s wife, Xiao Qiao, played by first-time actor Chiling Lin, is so out of her depth. Her beauty and talent which has obsessed Cao Cao for most of his life, just doesn’t shine through.

Although Woo cites Lawrence of Arabia as a major influence on his film-making, it’s the visual styles of Akira Kurosawa (The Seven Samurai, Ran) and Sam Peckinpah (The Wild Bunch, Cross of Iron) which he evokes in many of the action sequences in the film: crumbling edifices of fire ; skies darkened by clouds of flying arrows ; and perfectly formed jets of blood bursting from wounded bodies.

In an early skirmish there’s a great moment when Zhou Yu is struck by an arrow and knocked off his horse. He stands up, reefs the arrow from his chest and then charges on foot a Northern cavalryman, jumps on his horse and thrusts the bloodied arrow deep into the man’s neck, killing him. It’s an example of pure crowd pleasing visceral cinema which has few peers.

Along with the second unit team, legendary action choreographer Corey Yuen (Fong Sai-Yuk, High Risk) and stunt arranger Dion Lam (The Matrix, The Storm Riders) have produced a blood spattered cinematic mural of war in all its fervour and horror.

There are a number of faux Woo references in Red Cliff: babies in danger, doves in danger and Mexican stand-offs (Woo for dummies?), but longtime Woo aficionados will spot and enjoy a brief clip from a combat scene where Zhou Yu and General Lu Bei stand back to back, swords drawn and surrounded by enemy troops. In a quick mid-shot the camera pans across them and the audience is treated to a near frozen image from John Woo’s Hong Kong classic The Killer with Chow Yun-Fat and Danny Lee assuming the position.

The shorter version has allowed Woo to trim the cornier elements of the Chinese release. The most obvious being the occasionally tacky model work of the naval unit which was overseen by veteran Woo collaborator, Patrick Leung. And, as for one of the subplots completely excised from the international cut, that shows a wholly unlikely relationship between Sun Shang Xiang and a peace loving Northern officer – well, that shouldn’t have even made the Sino version!

I also found the closing minutes of the climactic battle to be strangely hurried, and involved an elaborate, over-choreographed stunt sequence which seemed very much out of place and more suited to a Rush Hour movie.

But these are minor quibbles to what is an excellent film. If you have an opportunity to see Red Cliff on the big screen – take it – you won’t be disappointed!

8 Feathered fans out of 10.
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