Reviewed by Robert Hood
After a long career in Hong Kong cinema, director John Woo made his name worldwide through what has affectionately been dubbed “Gun Fu” — highly stylized, even ritualized, crime/actioners such as Hard Boiled (1992), Hard Target (1993), Broken Arrow (1996), Face/Off (1997), Mission: Impossible II (2000) and Hostage (2002). These films feature such recognisable stylistic elements as slow-motion action sequences, tightly choreographed shoot-outs that become the visual equivalent of Hong Kong-style sword-fights, doves in flight across the foreground of fights, and “stalemate” confrontations.
Red Cliff represents Woo’s first return to Chinese cinema since he went Hollywood in the early 1990s — and frankly it is a spectacular one, modern in sensibility while being remarkably traditional, less Woo-like than his trademark gritty urban thrillers, yet displaying all his visual skills. It is also the most expensive film ever made in China. Released to enormous success as two films running nearly 5 hours in its homeland — and in that form eclipsing the previous box-office front-runner, Titanic — it was subsequently edited down for US release to a single film of about 148 minutes, thus making accommodation for shorter attention spans and the West’s penchant for breathless pacing.
In this review I won’t be commenting on that “US Theatrical” single-film version, other than to say that, having viewed only the full two-film epic, I can see how it could be edited down to its more basic plot without much trouble. However, as what you’d lose would be atmosphere, character development and pacing, I’m not particularly convinced of its validity as an artistic decision. In a way, all the background detail and build-up is the point. Red Cliff is a vast historical epic, based on Romance of the Three Kingdoms [Sān guó yǎn yì] by Guanzhong Luoa — a classic Chinese novel that tells the story of the Battle of Red Cliffs (otherwise known as the Battle of Chibi), a turning point in Chinese history. The battle took place in 208 AD, and became legendary in China for much the same reason that the Battle of Thermopylae became recognized as an iconic moment in ancient Greek lore. In the latter case, a small alliance of Greeks led by the Spartan King Leonidas and his 300 Spartans stood up against the vast invading armies of Xerxes I of Persia. It was a battle impossible to win, but the heroism of hopeless defeat became a rallying cry for the Greeks in subsequent years.
In the case of the “last stand” Battle of Red Cliff, the unlikely victory of the vastly outnumbered defending alliance signaled the end of the Han Dynasty and the start of the era of the Three Kingdoms in China. Recently, the battle of Thermopylae was re-imagined — this time in a highly fantastical manner — as 300 (US-2006; dir Zack Snyder). Another famous “hopeless” battle was the Battle of Rorke’s Drift, as immortalized by the film Zulu (UK-1964; dir. Cy Endfield), in which an outnumbered British garrison heroically defend their strategic post against the Zulu nation. This one, being from an earlier era, was less fantastical. Both illustrate, however, how “impossible” battles, whatever their outcome, make for strongly emotive stories and spectacular cinematography. Inevitably the relationship of such tales to actual historical events is problematic at best — and any expectation that either their intent or imagery bear a detailed relationship to those of History should probably be abandoned at the door. These are entertainments, not historical documents — particularly when the “legend” itself has over the years accrued its own inaccuracies by becoming an expression of various social and political agendas.
As depicted in Red Cliff, Han Dynasty Prime Minister Cao Cao (Fengyi Zhang), who controls the weak emperor, wants to unite the divided kingdoms by destroying the Southland “warlords” that are keeping the Dynasty from gaining complete dominance (that is, “unification”). Off he marches with his army of (or so it is claimed) nearly 800,000 men, as well as a huge flotilla of warships, set to demolish his enemies’ tenuous coalition (which boasts something like 50,000 men) and bring unity or death. There is also a sense that he has ulterior motives beyond the ulterior motive of self-aggrandisement: Xiao Qiao, the wife of Southland general Zhou Yu — a renowned beauty whom the painting on his wall reveals as a key obsession. Initially (in Part I) Cao Cao’s armies suffer a minor (though spectacularly realized) defeat, but that merely makes him more determined to overwhelm the opposing Southland armies at Red Cliff, in a naval battle that would be unmatched in Chinese history (Part II). There seems no hope for the heroic defenders — but Cao Cao fails to take account of his enemies’ strategic cunning, knowledge of local conditions, unorthodox tactics, the weather and sheer determination.
Without a doubt, Woo’s Red Cliff offers a highly romanticized version of both actual events and Guanzhong Luoa’s novel. In fact, his treatment of history reminds me of Homer’s The Iliad — in which a real-world battle becomes a mythologized struggle involving superhuman heroes and demigods. There are no demi-gods in Red Cliff, but the physical abilities of the heroes — especially Zhou Yu (played by Tony Leung), general to one of the two Southland warlords — are certainly mythic rather than realistic. Leung’s Zhou Yu (pictured above) leaps with the sort of impossible wire-work agility we’re used to in kung-fu films, wields his sword with deadly skill against any number of enemy soldiers and survives against whatever odds are thrown his way. In similar wise, Liu Bei’s chief advisor Zhuge Liang (Takeshi Kaneshiro) displays the equivalent skills in knowledge and wisdom, understanding the forces of nature with a supernatural perspicacity. Other warriors among the rebels might display less transcendent skill, but are nevertheless larger than life.
In fact, this is a “transcendent” war, sparkling with light and colour, Red Cliff’s brilliant photography making the most of beautiful costumes that remain remarkably pristine despite the dirt and blood and smoke, and which flow and dance across the screen, through its carnage and violence, with all the beauty and colour of a ballet. This isn’t a criticism, just a description. The “cleanliness” and beauty is part of the artifice of the film, along with such grace notes as splendid moments of musical communion between Zhou Yu and Zhuge Liang, spectacular scenery, precision tactical displays, clever reversals and fantastic swordplay. Yet though the war is “clean”, there is ample death on display, along with a proper sense of tragedy and waste — something Woo adroitly encapsulates in the relationship between two members of the opposing armies. War is hell, but it can be darkly beautiful, too.
It is true that throughout Part 1, the proliferation of similar-sounding names (similar to the Western ear) and the number of characters introduced is likely to be confusing for those unfamiliar with the story. But Woo paces it all well and before too long it all begins to solidify in your mind. Meanwhile, Woo’s ability to capture mass movements, large-scale conflict and tactical intricacies rarely falters, even while he keeps a firm eye on the individuals that lie at its centre. Red Cliff is a beautiful, spectacular and worthy film — not an accurate depiction of war, perhaps, but a meditation on the beauty that can arise from heroism, honour and the romance of violence. While perhaps not as profound or as cogent as the feudal epics of Kurosawa, it is nevertheless a remarkable achievement — in its logistics as well as its artistry. Seeing it on the big screen would be ideal, though it will, I have no doubt, translate well to Blu-ray.
- This review was first published on Eiga | Asian Cinema.