Red Cliff (赤壁) Made in: China Language: Chinese (Mandarin) Director: John Woo Starring: Tony Leung Chiu Wai, Takeshi Kaneshiro, Zhang Fengyi, Chang Chen, You Yong, Hu Jun, Zhao Wei, Lin Chi Ling, Shido Nakamura, Basen Zabu Year: 2008 (Part 1), 2009 (Part 2)
Synopsis: Action director John Woo tackles the most expensive Asian-financed film ever made (as of June 2010), bringing to life a famous historical battle in ancient China. The story takes place in 208-209 AD, during the waning years of the Han Dynasty which would lead to the Period of Three Kingdoms.
Chancellor Cao Cao (Zhang Fengyi), the influential prime minister to the Emperor, convinces the young ruler that a brewing rebellion in Southern China must be crushed. With the imperial army at his command, Cao Cao seeks to eliminate the warlords Liu Bei (You Yong) and Sun Quan (Chang Chen).
Fleeing the province of Jin as Cao Cao's forces invade, Liu Bei helps his people escape with the help of his loyal brothers in arms, Zhao Yun (Hu Jun) and Guan Yu (Basen Zhabu). Liu Bei's chief tactical advisor, Zhuge Liang (Takeshi Kaneshiro), proposes an alliance with warlord Sun Quan in an effort to beat back the power-hungry Cao Cao.
Zhuge Liang presents his plan through Zhou Yu (Tony Leung), the highly respected commander of Sun Quan's small but effective army.
As both sides agree to combine forces, Zhou Yu and Zhuge Liang must also use their collective fighting skill, ingenuity, and resourcefulness to defend their land against a vastly greater enemy. As the time for battle draws near, the warlords prepare for a final, explosive showdown at the banks of the Yangtze River known as the Red Cliff...
The Good: John Woo is well-known for his amazing action films, which were largely made in Hong Kong.
After coming to the US, however, the Hollywood system seems to have stifled his creativity. The results of Tinseltown interference yielded mediocre-to-downright-steaming cinematic poop such as Hard Target, Broken Arrow, Face-Off, Mission Impossible 2, Windtalkers, and Paycheck.
The short film Hostage was okay, but there was no doubt that John Woo wasn't winning many new fans Stateside.
Then came Red Cliff, which saw the return of John Woo to Asia and a highly anticipated reunion with Tony Leung. And not only does Woo hit one out of the park (which his fans have been hoping for), he delivers an epic on par with Chen Kaige's Emperor and the Assassin and Ang Lee's Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon.
As a film, Red Cliff has the perfect blend of drama, action, story, and character development. The ensemble cast is amazing, and Tony Leung carries the film with ease. Takeshi Kaneshiro does a superb job in his role, and veteran Zhang Fengyi is fantastic as well. Same goes for the cinematography. The set design, costumes, and art direction are all consistent with Chinese epic dramas.
Of course, many of John Woo's trademark visuals are present. Fans of previous Woo action flicks such as The Killer, Hard Boiled, and Bullet in the Head will notice familiar visual devices.
Yes, there are doves, slow motion, a flame-drenched climactic confrontation, and even dual-wield weapons. Obviously there are no guns, but a guy does pick up two swords at one point. Happy?
Even at 4+ hours, Red Cliff moves at the perfect pace. It never drags, and feels like a complete epic without mentally draining you.
The Bad: Not much to complain about here. Although the CG effects were necessary in parts, they aren't as polished as they could have been. Also, some battle sequences will really stretch the realm of believability. Seeing one guy take on a whole legion of troops with a single spear sure is exciting, but comes awfully close to failing the laugh test.
Who would like this movie: This is one for anybody who's a John Woo fan, a fan of foreign films, and epic movies in general. Of course, those familiar with Chinese history would find much to appreciate and discuss (since I'm sure the historical accuracy of this film will be a hot topic).
The story is presented in a way that will appeal to modern day film-goers. There's the underdog element that will make you think of 300 (only no one here is fighting in his underwear), plus a kick-ass girl who wants to fight with the boys (but at first is laughed at before proving herself).
Whether any of this actually happened is anyone's guess. But it does make for good storytelling and probably went over well with test audiences.
Perhaps the best thing about this film is that it'll spark interest in ancient Chinese history. If you try researching the Battle of the Red Cliffs on your own, you're likely to find a whole load of other fascinating facts about historical figures, battles, and the course of modern Chinese culture.
Red Cliff proves that John Woo still has his mojo, and I highly recommend that you watch the international version (which is over 4 hours long).