- Released Internationally on 10/07/08 and 07/01/09 (2-Part version)
- Released in Malta by KRS on 30/09/09
In a nutshell
Chinese director John Woo, who has made some of the better American action films of the past two decades, returns to his roots to bring us an epic slice of his homeland’s history.
A bit of history
For those of us not versed in the ancient history of China, the film opens with a brief explanatory note. This film is set around 208 AD, when the Han Dynasty was crumbling to an end, making way for the period of disunity known as the Three Kingdoms period. Intricate details are not essential to the enjoyment of this retelling, but the film manages to impress on the audience the large scope and significance of the grand Battle of Red Cliffs, which brought about this turning point in Chinese history, and which is the subject of this ambitious film.
With numerous writing, production and direction credits under his belt, John Woo crossed over to Hollywood in the early 90s and directed a string of hard-hitting action films. He established his own very visual style with the huge hits Broken Arrow, Face/Off and Mission: Impossible 2, with trademark slow-motion balletic action sequences and numerous doves flying around to enhance the aura. He has now returned to the Chinese film industry to direct a screenplay he helped develop himself, and thankfully his skills are very much on display, whilst keeping slow-mo and doves to a minimum.
Abridged Western version
The film was made in two parts, totalling over four and a half hours, and released as two separate films in the Far East. The film was a huge success and it now the most successful entirely Chinese film ever made (which came in handy since it was the most expensive one too). This summer, and trimmed down two and a half cut was unveiled for Western audiences, so that the film could be released as a whole. Despite entire sub plot and lengthy scenes being given the axe, the resulting film manages to be very self-sufficient and coherent, although those enthralled by the epic would do well to seek out the original versions.
More than war?
The film is to all intents and purposes a simple A versus B story. ‘A’ being the ruthless Prime Minister Cao Cao and ‘B’ being an alliance between the two great warlords of southern China Liu Bei and Sun Quan. The films quickly sets this grand battle up, and then regales us with all the strategies, backhand moves, preparations and passion that goes into this extensive war, without ever becoming tedious or detailed. The final act of the film presents the culmination of all the preparations, with a staggered and masterful assault on Cao Cao’s forces, who are however fully aware of the oncoming attack. In a male-dominated film, the subplot of the wife of one of Sun Quan’s viceroys adds some much needed warmth and intimacy to the proceedings, and her valiant attempt to do her bit for victory plays a pivotal role in the battle’s outcome.
This being an entirely local production, I for one was completely unfamiliar with all the cast and crew apart from Woo. The size of the production, however, was enough to attract many of the most established and respected Chinese names to the film, and the result is an ensemble cast that shows no cracks and keeps the focus firmly on the important war at hand. Standouts are veteran actor Tony Leung Chiu-Wai (Internal Affairs, Hero) as the viceroy Zhou Yu, whose righteous poise and calculated actions help inspire his army, and clearly show us which side we’d rather be on. Takeshi Kaneshiro (House of Flying Daggers) is also wonderful as the strategist Zhuge Liang, and his changing expressions foretell the shifting fortunes of the war.
When action of such a huge proportion is concerned, special effects play a vital role, and here they are up to the task. With helps from thousands of extras from the Chinese army, Woo manages to make the battle scenes entirely believable as mammoth set pieces, and there’s no doubting that a whole dynasty is at stake here. The final assault unleashes all that we have seen accumulating, and is a battle of Helm’s Deep proportions. The computer-generated images are only slightly weak when it comes to scenes on the river, but ultimately they are very sufficient, and hardly a distraction. The script manages to entertain us with the unusual strategies and tricks of war, without becoming too complex, and the battle occasionally springs surprises that even William Wallace would be proud of.
In the end
The first half hour had me dreading a tedious war film that more resembles a documentary re-telling of history, but the film picks up pace and John Woo manages to make us care about his characters and marvel at their expertise in the strategy room and on the battle field. This film should appeal both to history buffs and to lovers of epic battle films, and is a well-made and enjoyable advertisement for Chinese cinema.
http://www.apple.com/trailers/magnolia/redcliff/ (High-res QuickTime)