Perhaps tired of the Hollywood dregs he’s been offered, John Woo has turned to a traditional historical action-oriented epic in his native China. After all, all the cool kids were doing it: Ang Lee (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon) and Zhang Yimou (Hero) have had their day with blockbuster period martial arts epics. Woo’s Red Cliff is more of a war film, but it likewise makes ancient history spectacular and colorful.
Set in Northern China in 208 AD, Red Cliff essays the Battle of Red Cliffs, a major engagement—during the Wars of the Three Kingdoms period—that pit the imperial army against a tentative alliance of rebel warlords. Hawkish Prime Minister Cao Cao (Zhang Fengyi) convinces the Emperor (Wang Ning) to go out of his way to eliminate pockets of resistance. This, in turn, inspires the rebel warlords to band together, at the urging of key advisors like Zhuge Liang (Takeshi Kaneshiro of House of Flying Daggers) and Zhou Yu (Tony Leung Chiu Wai of Hero and Lust, Caution).
Along with their director, these familiar faces of international cinema infuse Red Cliff with its wiliness and its heart. The most delightful element of Red Cliff is Woo’s obvious identification with the generals and strategists on screen. Like them, Woo must focus on his choice of approach, and the details of large-scale attacks by land and sea: ambushes, massive formations, clanging swords, flaming arrows, and the like (one scene finds Cao Cao overlooking all his toys from the flagship of the fleet). But like his martial men, Woo is attracted to subtler stuff as well. In a wonderful evocation of the art of war, Woo not only recreates elegant troop movements but also stages a memorable scene in which Zhou Yu and Zhuge Liang, still wary of each other, bond over music as they play what becomes a conversational duet.
Red Cliff is partly inspired by the classic historical novel Romance of the Three Kingdoms, but Woo turned more frequently to the history Records of Three Kingdoms in his quest for a more authentic, if still larger-than-life account. Of course, nothing gets in the way of a good story or an opportunity for a startling visual. Woo devises a troop formation of his own and, straying from the historical record, pumps up the female roles—woman warrior Shang Xiang (Zhao Wei) and Zhou Yu's self-sacrificing wife Xiao Qiao (Lin Chi-ling)—to give a sense of both female and male heroism during wartime.
The rub is that the Chinese version of Red Cliff runs over four and a half hours (in two parts), while the international release Americans will see runs only two and a half hours. So it’s hard to judge the overall artistic merit of Woo’s film, considering how much of it isn’t here. (At a budget of around $80 million, the full epic is the most expensive movie ever produced in Asia, and it toppled the Chinese box-office record previously held by Titanic). Still, this version is coherent—if anything, it’s simplistic rather than confusing—and the film remains impressive in its scale.
[This review first appeared in Palo Alto Weekly.]