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Within the first 30 minutes of John Woo’s “Red Cliff”, which features a continuous 30-something minutes of battle scenes, you understand why the film ran over schedule and over budget, coming in at a reported “most expensive production ever in Asia” $80 million dollars. Released in Asia in two parts ala Tarantino’s “Kill Bill”, “Red Cliff” parts one (late 2008) and two (early 2009) is expected to be combined into a 2 ½ hour movie for International consumption. The film is yet another interpretation of “Romance of the Three Kingdoms”, the legendary novel by Guanzhong Luo which is also the basis for another high-profile film from China in 2008, Andy Lau’s “Resurrection of the Dragon”. Indeed, the main character in “Dragon” actually resurfaces again in “Red Cliff”, but this time in a supporting turn.
“Red Cliff” stars a pan-Asian cast led by Takeshi Kaneshiro (“House of Flying Daggers”), here playing the brilliant war strategist Zhuge Liang, a man who claims to know only “a little”, but neglects to mention that it’s about pretty much everything. Set during the Han Dynasty (circa 200 AD), “Red Cliff Part 1” opens with the ambitious Han Prime Minister Cao Cao (Fengyi Zhang) brow-beating the ruling Emperor into invading the Southlands of China, currently ruled by two “warlords” – the demure Liu Bei (Yong You) and the young and untested Sun Quan (Chen Chang). The battle against Liu Bei goes well, forcing Bei to send Liang to Sun Quan for assistance. Knowing that Cao Cao would eventually come for him next, Sun Quan and his general Zhou Yu (Tony Leung) prepare for war, forming a makeshift alliance with Liu Bei. They make as their last stand the titular Red Cliff, where Cao Cao and his massive forces advance, seeking to crush all resistance in their path.
“Red Cliff Part 2” picks up with Cao Cao’s forces having incurred losses, but not enough to deter the Prime Minister from his goal: crush Zhou Yu’s forces at Red Cliff using every method at his disposal. This includes sending diseased bodies into Zhou Yu’s camp, the result of which is friction within the Red Cliff ranks. Liu Bei, never the strongest of men, quickly disengages from the war, leaving Sun Quan and Zhou Yu by themselves, their remaining forces hopelessly dwarfed by Cao Cao’s. Meanwhile, the military strategist Zhuge Liang continues to probe the Cao Cao ranks using an unlikely infiltrator. It all sets the stage for the film’s grand battle, with the fate of China at stake. Can the heavily outnumbered forces of Red Cliff beat back the invading giants from the North? It’s going to take some doing, a lot of luck, and a hell of a lot of bodies to find out. Luckily for us, John Woo has $80 million to make it happen.
The first thing you notice about “Red Cliff” is that despite the four-hour length, it is not a particularly expansive story that would actually need the whole four hours to tell. Which makes the question of whether the film can be condensed into a 2 ½ hour version and still have it come across as coherent easy to answer. Yes, it can be done. There is really only about one hour of actual plot in the entire story, with the rest of screentime invested in heavy character mythos and expanded arcs for secondary and background characters. The unedited version of “Red Cliff” is without question heavily padded, so excising a scene here, a long sequence there (the stolen ox subplot alone runs about 10 minutes), and a 2 ½ hour movie that does not destroy the essence of “Red Cliff” is more than possible. The fact that Woo Knew he had four hours to play with means he didn’t need to, as the saying goes, “kill his darlings”. For a 2 ½ hour cut, he’ll have to do just that.
Longtime fans of Woo’s brand of action will notice almost immediately that the director has eschewed much of his trademark visual flairs. Oh sure, there are some slow motion here and there, but don’t expect doves to inexplicably flutter into frame as the hero stalks across the camera in gratuitous slow motion. Mind you, not that “Red Cliff” is all about the down and dirty grit of ancient Chinese combat. Fans of Chinese kung fu cinema will have plenty to chew on, especially whenever the film’s legendary generals, led by Zhao Zilong (Jun Hu) and Guan Yu (Ba Sen Zha Bu) show up to deal out a little pain and a lot of death to the enemy. Even as large-scale warfare takes place in the background, Woo manages to carve out time for the Generals to ply their legendary trade. It’s good stuff, and fans of kung fu cinema will eat it up.
Although “Red Cliff” is very much about the men and the war they wage, the women do have plenty of screentime. Taiwanese model Chiling Lin makes her debut as Xiao Qiao, Zhou Yu’s beautiful wife, who, once upon a time, caught the eye of a certain power hungry Prime Minister. In one of those “so Chinese” moments, Xiao Qiao uses her past with Cao Cao to stall the Prime Minister’s attack on Red Cliff. It’s ridiculous and silly, especially in this kind of movie, but it’s just so Chinese you just have to take it at face value. Vicki Zhao plays Sun Shang Xiang, the little sister to Sun Quan, who insists on joining the war effort with her warrior maidens. Zhao brings her trademark mischievous personality and much-needed mirth to a movie that, at times seem to be about the boys and their little power grabs and the blood that flows as a result. Zhao gets more screen time in the second part, when her character takes a more active role and truly becomes a vital part of the fight.
“Red Cliff” features three major battle scene set pieces – the one that opens the film, a mid-movie engagement, and a final, extended battle that literally begins at night and ends the next day. The last two battles are composed of intricately choreographed strategy that Woo takes great pains to explain in every detail to the audience. If you were an accountant looking to justify the film’s expenses, you would have no problems finding where all the money went. It’s all up there on the big screen. The film features thousands of extras in period battle gear, elaborate sets built from the ground up, and extensive, majestic establishing shots of the two warring factions. The three massive battle set pieces easily account for more than an hour of the film’s running time. I would imagine the easiest part of the movie for Woo to direct must be the quiet, contemplative moments that explore the film’s characters and their motivations, of which there are many.
Chinese history buffs will no doubt be able to pick out the truth from the creative license, but everyone else will just appreciate John Woo’s sense of grand scale storytelling. At times, it seems as if Woo is perhaps a little too preoccupied with setting up the battles, but it’s impossible to quibble with the results. As his return to Chinese cinema, Woo couldn’t have picked a better project. “Red Cliff” allows the Hong Kong Godfather of gunfu to dabble in all of his trademark themes (brotherhood, loyalty, a resounding belief in fair play), while exploring new territory (the Chinese martial arts epic). With “Red Cliff”, John Woo has managed to re-invent himself as a director, while at the same time padding his resume as still being John Woo. It took $80 million, but no one can say he didn’t put it all up there on the screen.
John Woo (director) / Khan Chan, Cheng Kuo, Heyu Sheng, John Woo (screenplay), Guanzhong Luo (novel “Romance of the Three Kingdoms”)
CAST: Chen Chang … Sun Quan
Yong Hou … Lu Su
Jun Hu … Zhao Zilong
Takeshi Kaneshiro … Zhuge Liang
Tony Leung Chiu Wai … Zhou Yu
Wei Zhao … Sun Shangxiang
Chiling Lin … Xiao Qiao
Shido Nakamura … Gan Xing
Jia Song … Li Ji