The most expensive Chinese language picture ever, John Woo’s costume actioner, Red Cliff, scales the heights. John Woo makes a triumphant return to Asian cinema with Red Cliff, the excellent first film in his two film adaptation of Romance of the Three Kingdoms. All of Woo’s trademarks and themes are present, from beautiful slow motion action shots, emotion driven freeze frames, to the themes of brotherhood and honor. Red Cliff is a spectacular war epic based on a tumultuous time in China’s feuding warlords history, set just about and after the downfall of the Han dynasty.
Yarn opens in summer AD 208, with prime minister-cum-general Cao Cao (powerful mainland Chinese vet Zhang Fengyi) asking permission from Han dynasty Emperor Xian to lead an expedition south to take on rebellious warlords Liu Bei and Sun Quan. Cao Cao was eventually defeated at the Battle of the Red Cliff by the combined forces of Liu Bei and Sun Quan. Red Cliff is a required viewing at least once. I assure you, you won’t be disappointed. I found there was very little to complain about the film. Although, it does become slow in some parts, it is still a break through film.
The appearance, 40 minutes in, of toplined Leung (a last-minute replacement for Chow Yun-Fat) adds some real emotional heft to the drama. Main cast has few weak links and traverses all shades of character. Zhang and Leung dominate the movie, while Kaneshiro is fine as wily strategist Zhuge and Zhao adds welcome humor as the feisty princess. Chang is a tad lightweight in such company as the wimpish Sun, and Taiwanese super-model Lin Chi-ling mostly decorative as Zhou’s wife.
The fight sequences were pure spectacle, with old school wire work combined with technological wizardry to showcase some large scale battle sequences at a macro level, or to highlight the immense naval numbers that Cao Cao brings to battle. Formations and strategies take centerstage. I was impressed by the coordination of the army, on how they moved and understood drum beats accordingly. There were a lot of gore in this show, you’ll see lots of blood spilling everywhere. Action wise, there are only two battles, one at the beginning and one at the end. Both battles are beautifully choreographed and photographed, and they run about twenty minutes each. Having only two battles does not hurt Red Cliff at all. In between the battles we are treated to a great story with excellent characterization. This is a 4 1/2 hour epic movie that was split into two seperate movies. Stay tuned for Red Cliff 2 review in the coming weeks.