In 208 A.D., in the final days of the Han Dynasty, shrewd Prime Minister Cao Cao (Fengyi Zhang) convinces the fickle Emperor that the only way to unite all of China is to declare war on the kingdoms of Xu in the west and East Wu in the south. This launches a military campaign of unprecedented scale, led by the Prime Minister himself. Left with no other hope for survival, the kingdoms of Xu and East Wu form an unlikely alliance. Numerous battles of strength and wit ensue, both on land and on water, eventually culminating in the battle of Red Cliff. During the battle, two thousand ships are burned, a force of fifty thousand defeats an army of nearly one million - and the course of Chinese history is changed forever.
Review by Andrew L. Urban:
First, a bit of context: John Woo returns to China to make a film he has been burning to make, an adaptation from the much read book, Romance of the Three Kingdoms, written in about the 14th century - many years after the events depicted, but then these events are as important in China's history as Gallipoli is to Australia's. Multiply the war dead by a factor of several thousand, and add in the formation of a new China ... it's biggish. But Woo’s original 2-part, 4-hour film has been condensed into a single movie, to its detriment; it’s not a movie that can be paraphrased. (The US distributors were fearful that a 4 hour movie would not sell … and have foisted this version on us all.)
The battle of Red Cliff is the climactic finale to Woo's epic, in which no extra is spared, no sword unbloodied and no heroic fight unrecorded. Tony Leung plays the heroic Zhou Yu, who stands up to the scheming and ambitious Cao Cao, played by Fengy Zhang. Both are outstanding in their roles, offering contrasting personalities and moralities, while also respecting each other's prowess. Wei Zhao is gorgeous as Zhou Yu's wife Sun Shangxiang, and the entire key supporting cast deserves acclaim. They portray characters that individually have a role to play in this historic saga.
Woo is keen to tell the story in great detail; the film is meticulous, explanatory and made in a fusion style, blending Woo's Hollywood sensibilities with his Chinese traditionalist references. The battles and fights are brilliantly staged, but Woo takes plenty of time to show the characters, their agendas, the enormity of what's at stake - and the intimate aspects of Zhou Yu and his pregnant wife.
You may be surprised by seeing some clever football played in 3rd Century China, and by the phrase 'psychological warfare' in a line of dialogue written for Zhou Yu.
There are flaws, too, notably near the end when a climactic stand off involving the two leaders and the captured Shangxiang, when credibility is stretched unnecessarily in a fight sequence. Early in the film, there is a section that is a tad confusing for those not familiar with Chinese history of the 3rd century (some of us just didn't pay attention in that lesson) but this is corrected as the story unravels. And I am not convinced we need English language narration at the start, considering all the dialogue is in Mandarin; if we invest in subtitles for the film, we can handle subtitles for the narration, immersing us more fully in the film's setting. Incidentally, some of the location settings are breathtaking.
But these shortcomings fade quickly, and we are left with the resonance of a film that takes its subjects seriously enough not to trivialise it to a set of action scenes.
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RED CLIFF (M)
Chi bi xia: Jue zhan tian xia
CAST: Tony Leung Chiu Wai, Takeshi Kaneshiro, Fengyi Zhang, Chen Chang, Wei Zhao, Jun Hu, Chiling Lin, Shido Nakamura, Yong Yu,
PRODUCER: John Woo, Terence Chang
DIRECTOR: John Woo
SCRIPT: John Woo, Chan Khan, Kuo Cheng, Sheng Heyu (novel by Guanzhong Luo)
CINEMATOGRAPHER: Lu Yue, Zhang Li
EDITOR: Angie Lam, David Wu, Hongyu Yang
MUSIC: Taro Iwashiro
PRODUCTION DESIGN: Tim Yip
RUNNING TIME: 131 minutes
AUSTRALIAN DISTRIBUTOR: Icon
AUSTRALIAN RELEASE: July 23, 2009