2008 // China // John Woo // June 21, 2011 // Blu-ray - Magnolia (2010)
The Battle of Red Cliffs is probably the most famous military conflict from one of the most celebrated and routinely sentimentalized eras of Chinese history, the Three Kingdoms Period. It's an event that has acquired a virtually legendary character since it unfolded in roughly A.D. 208-209. However, the battle remains relatively obscure in the West, save among two stripes of Sinophiles: the rare fan of Koei's never-ending Dynasty Warriors video game franchise, and the even rarer reader that has braved a translation of Luo Guanzhong's fourteenth-century novel, The Romance of the Three Kingdoms. (I count myself in the former category, for the record.)
For other Western viewers of John Woo's gargantuan, heavily fictionalized military epic Red Cliff, the vast cast of characters and unfamiliar political conflicts will likely be daunting. Fortunately, Woo ably preserves the elementary human threads that have made the Romance an enduring touchstone in China's national mythology, and in the process provides ample handholds for a non-Asian audience. The emotional and thematic terrain will be familiar to fans of Shakespeare and The Sopranos alike: ambition, pride, loyalty, lust, tradition, and free will. Oh, and it goes without saying that the film is hellzapoppin' with gigantic battle scenes, fantastic martial arts heroics, and fountains of blood.
The so-called International Version of Red Cliff--comprising two separate films that screened theatrically in Asia--clocks in at a staggering 288 minutes. Only a handful of living auteurs can pull off that kind of behemoth without the film in question risking bloat, and none of them are named John Woo. Accordingly, Red Cliff features several sequences that amount to little more than prosaic wheel-spinning, such as the limp romantic subplot and a maudlin (and rather cheap) storyline about a friendship across enemy lines. It's easy to single out these overstuffed points, but the lengthy running time also has its virtues. The size and scope of Red Cliff permits a full and evenhanded treatment of the numerous larger-than-life characters on all sides of the conflict, which is one of the distinctly modern strengths of the Romance. It also gives Woo license to to slow things down a little, showering loving attention on the action sequences, which rely mainly on practical effects at the smaller scale and go digital for the majestic panning shots of vast armies and navies. The director allows plot points to play out in a relatively measured manner, providing that much more gratification when the myriad schemes finally come to fruition. In the current era of Michael Bay-born hysterical ugliness, this kind of deliberate, byzantine historical epic almost feels quaint.
In keeping with the traditional portrayal in the Romance, the ruthless Prime Minister and Wei warlord Cao Cao (Fengyi Zhang) is the closest thing the film has to a villain, but even he is portrayed as a tragic figure rather than an amoral monster. On the other hand, Woo shakes up his Chinese audience's expectations by downplaying the normally heroic role of the Shu generals, especially the renowned Three Brothers of Liu Bei (Yong You), Guan Yu (Ba Sen Zha Bu), and Zhang Fei (Jinsheng Zang). Red Cliff shifts the focus to resolute Wu general Zhou Yu, a tweak telegraphed by the casting of Hong Kong mega-star Tony Leung in the role. In general, the depiction of the characters favors the mythical and archetypal over the nuanced, partly out of deference to established conceptions of these historical and pseudo-historical personalities, but also out of necessity, given the sweep of the thing. The film is assisted in this respect by a host of glowing, lively performances, especially from Takeshi Kaneshiro as serene tactician Zhunge Liang and Wei Zhao as the spirited warrior maiden Sun Shang Xiang. If those character names mean anything to you, the pleasures of Red Cliff will probably be that much more acute.